Interview with Max Stafford-Clark
19th Feb 2016
Out of Joint is bringing Max Stafford-Clark’s in-the-dark staging of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall into the West End for just 5 weeks from 13 April, following sell-out performances in London and Bristol. He talks about why the play appeals to him more than Beckett’s better known work – and his love of trains – with Jon Bradfield.
JB: When did you first encounter All That Fall?
MSC: I read it I suppose about 25 years ago. I think I find myself out of sympathy with the nihilistic, non-specific worlds of Beckett’s better known stage plays, such as Waiting for Godot, so I was intrigued to find that Michael Billington had chosen not one of the better known plays but All That Fall for his book The 101 Greatest Plays.
What’s interesting is it contains the tropes of Beckett, the decay and death and that view of the world he had after the war when belief in Christianity, or socialism, seemed to have been eradicated…
But it’s softened in All That Fall?
It’s contextualised more, and therefore it’s more comprehensible. I find his a gloomy philosophy of life but it’s one he held, and when you read his life you begin to understand his certain cynicism. He was a medical orderly and a nurse in a bombed-out French village after the war. And indeed his experiences in occupied France – the local priest in the place he was hiding was involved in giving information to the Gestapo.
I think the fact that All That Fall is socially specific, that it evokes a particular suburban world of Anglo-Irish Protestantism drew me to the play.
It’s a very simple story – Mrs Rooney’s journey to the station to pick up her blind husband on a Saturday lunchtime. It would have been quite normal to for people in office jobs to work on a Saturday morning. But to that simple structure he adds a specificity of the social class of people she meets.
It’s certainly more naturalistic than Godot or Endgame or Happy Days. Is the Irishness part of the draw too? Like Beckett you were at Trinity College, your wife [playwright Stella Feehily] is Irish, you’ve worked regularly with Sebastian Barry, you’ve twice directed Tom Kilroy’s Irish version of The Seagull…
Well I’m a Hibernophile from way back. And Beckett was drawing on real life. Connolly’s van passes Mrs Rooney on her outward journey in the play, and there was a grocers called Connolly’s in Foxrock… When I was in Dublin in the early sixties it was still a collision of country and town. Donkeys were used as working animals in rural towns around Dublin.
So Foxrock would have been semi rural?
It would have been completely rural and is now suburban. The station has gone.
The play is slightly unresolved. We’re left not knowing if Mr Rooney had something to do with the incident that’s revealed at the end of the play – and there’s a mystery around the object that he’s dropped. Do you and the cast need to know these answers in rehearsal to make the play work?
I left it open as late as possible last year but by the middle of the run the actor playing Mr Rooney became convinced he was involved. When Beckett himself was asked he said “if I knew I’d tell you” so he was deliberately out to create an unresolved mystery.
And do you like that, or do you find it frustrating?
Initially frustrating, but eventually I found it very satisfying that we don’t know.
It’s a way of suggesting a distance between them as a couple.
The thing about them as a couple is that in the first half when Mrs Rooney’s going to the station by herself she’s entirely dominant. She’s a rather acerbic and fractious neighbour to the people she meets. Yet when she meets her husband she’s totally dominated by him. It rings true of a number of literary relationships and probably rings true of a number of relationships Beckett had.
You like your trains. Was that part of the appeal?
It was part of the appeal of the sound effects, yes! There’s scope for a couple of trains to pass and I have a very clear picture in my mind of what kind of locomotives would have been involved.
Someone recently suggested to me that steam trains are magical to us because they’re the closest we’ve come to creating life.
I’ll have to digest that but they’re very exciting creatures.
They sort of breathe.
Yeah that’s right. I think my first memory was driving down to Devon with my parents for a holiday. There was a huge traffic jam outside Honiton and we stopped and walked across a field, my father and I, and sat on a fence above a railway cutting and saw these extraordinarily beautiful and noisy steam engines going by. And as you know I have an extensive model railway that I return to every night.
You play with it every day?
Operate it. Not play! It’s a complete world, it’s Vermont in 1956, about the same time as All That Fall in fact, so I’m fifteen when I go in there, and Stella doesn’t exist.
So coming back to the play, for this revival is there anything you’d like to change from when you staged it last year in Enniskillen?
I think I’ll make Mrs Rooney a bit more impossible. I mean, I think she’s a person that if you saw her coming down the street you might cross over to the other side of the road rather than risk a social confrontation with her.
She’s both flirty and scolding isn’t she.
That’s right – she’s that kind of unpredictability that’s quite difficult socially. You don’t know if she’s going to tear you off a strip or ask you to tea.
Did you know Beckett?
No. I met him a few times. He’d talk about the impossibility of guarding his work. “I spend my life trying…” So when we sought permission from the Beckett estate to stage All That Fall and Edward Beckett asked me what was my vision for the play, I knew the correct answer was that there was no vision at all. Beckett’s instruction was that the voices come “as from the void”.