Images: Grant Archer
Footfalls and Rockaby by Samuel Beckett – Jermyn Street Theatre, London
In the tiny, pub theatre-esque Jermyn Street Theatre Samuel Beckett’s two monologues, Footfalls and Rockaby, exert a powerful hold. The performers appear ghost-like, illuminated against the blackness with space defined only by strips of white neon. These form a cage around Siân Phillips in Rockaby, rocking back and forth on her chair, ticking down her final hourse. In Footfalls, the light creates an edge against which Charlotte Emmerson leans her head when she finally stops pacing, counting her nine steps across the room and nine back. The double bill, directed by Richard Beecham, brings together late Beckett pieces, from the late ’70s and early ’80s that work well together. Both are about women counting down time, with only one possible outcome.
Emmerson, on Simon Kenny’s neat, two platform set, paces a raised rectangle of space, beating out rhythms in her movement and speech. Something undefined has happened to leave her in this state, a ghost of a person with only rituals to show she is still alive. The voice of her mother, off-stage, asks “Will you never have done … revolving it all … In your poor mind?” Emmerson, working within Beckett’s strict stage directions, reveals desperation and resilience as two sides of the same coin. She is mesmerising, part of play that seems to stop time.
When Phillips enters, it seems for a moment that she is the unseen mother from Footfalls, but the transition is between plays to the stiller, even more musical Rockaby. In a chair, rocking gently, Phillips part is mostly pre-recorded with occasional comments as she listens to the voices in her head. Beckett’s poetry is particularly absorbing, with lulling, repetitive patterns of speech matching the rocking of the chair, soothing the unnamed character as she sinks away. The repeated phrase “Till in the end / the day came / in the end came / close of a long day” is a mantra with the power to close down a life. Dame Siân’s rich voice is perfect for this role, and the Beckett’s writing does not bring the terror of death into the theatre, but rather it’s inevitability.
Beecham’s production is top quality theatre, with a well chosen and beautifully cast pair of plays performed in a magically unlikely space that feels like a leftover from a lost West End of dive bars and characterful landladies. In fact, it’s an essential piece of the London theatre scene, and there can be few places in the world where the best performers around will play in such an unglamorous setting. We should be grateful for the Jermyn Street Theatre for serving up unbeatable evenings such as this.