Writer Samuel Beckett wrote ‘Footfalls’ between March and December 1975. It premiered at the Samuel Beckett Festival in 1976 at the Royal Court Theatre, when he directed the play himself. From the amount of stage directions written for this play, it is clear that Beckett had a very strong vision of how these plays should be presented. ‘Rockaby’ was written and performed later in New York in 1981.
The accurately titled ‘Footfalls’, is aptly titled. A woman called May is pacing the floor with a need to hear her footfalls as she paces. It’s as though the rhythmic sound helps her to make sense of her thoughts. We hear May’s mother’s voice in the background, talking and occasionally counting the steps before May wheels around and begins pacing in the opposite direction. Beckett stipulated in his stage directions that there should be a low-level strip light parallel to the front edge of the stage, length seven steps width one metre. This is how precise Beckett’s instructions were, and it almost makes the play feel mechanical in its construction. Behind these mechanics, is a human being. During the dialogue it is revealed that May has been doing this since she was young, she never leaves the house, but we don’t know why.
Charlotte Emmerson takes on the role of May, not caring about her appearance, she wears a tatty cardigan and shabby skirt. The precision of the timing is essential, and Emmerson achieves this as per Beckett’s careful instructions. The metronomic sound of the footsteps is eerie with the black walls and minimal strip light, and we are left to wonder why May is doing this, and what goes through her mind, as she thinks and paces. The sound of her mother’s voice (Sian Phillips) adds to the uneasy feeling that this play evokes.
‘Rockaby’, shares the same stage as ‘Footfalls’ with the blackened walls and strip lighting surrounding the mesh cube shaped box but Sian Phillips is now alone on stage. The rocking chair appears dark which is slightly different to Beckett’s description of how he imagined it should look, with its ‘pale wood highly polished to gleam when rocking’, but we must allow for the directors’ artistic license. This mini play begins with the ‘Rockabye Baby’ lullaby song playing in the background and Sian Phillips gently rocking to and fro. Her appearance is more polished than Beckett’s version, but the spotlit face remains expressionless and pale. This elderly lady rocks to send herself into eternal sleep and one cannot help but marvel at the writer’s measured short sentences, accompanied by the hypnotic rocking. As much of the speech is pre-recorded by Sian Phillips, her physical performance must be perfectly co-ordinated, and Phillips did not miss a beat.
Both plays have a stripped back physicality; ‘Footfalls’ with the pacing and ‘Rockaby’ with the rocking motion. Both create a metronome effect giving the plays a tempo that challenges the words to keep in step. When seeing a Beckett play, the lack of a plot almost begs for the mind to create its own. It teases the viewer into creating their own back story as the need for context has not been delivered by the playwright.
The overall effect of ‘Footfall’ is that of curiosity – why? ‘Rockaby’ tackles the subject of facing impending death, the rocking encourages the deepest of sleeps, there are no questions, just acceptance. Jermyn Street Theatre have tackled two very difficult plays here and have pulled it off magnificently. The creative team have worked together to create a set, sound, costume, and lighting design that shadow’s Beckett’s instructions and the performances of Sian Phillips and Charlotte Emmerson are precise and hauntingly brilliant. All interpreted magnificently by Richard Beecham’s direction.
To see this play at Jermyn Street Theatre you must hurry to book as it finishes on the 20th November, go to https://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/footfalls-rockaby/
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 5th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★