After the long periods of confinement during the lockdowns, modern audiences may possibly resonate more now with the absurdist stylings of Samuel Beckett’s Footfalls and Rockaby, about two separate women trapped alone both physically and also existentially in their own heads.
These miniature masterpieces are like meditations on loneliness, and seem to mirror the parallel epidemic of isolation and mental illness that accompanied the pandemic.
In this double bill of two short plays which in total last only 40 minutes, Beckett appears to be exploring the themes of obsessive compulsive patterns, memory and ageing. Although back-stories are hinted at, no specific details are given, and it is left up to the audience to interpret each of the characters narratives.
In Footfalls an unidentified trauma from the protagonist’s childhood has stopped her from ever going out, and in Rockaby an old woman sits in her rocking chair by the window hoping to see another human face before death ‘rocks her off.’
Footfalls begins with the single chime of a bell – where May (Charlotte Emmerson), paces nine steps back and forth repetitively on a short strip of corridor outside the room where her mother lies dying, or may already be dead.
May interacts with the vocal berating of her unseen mother (voiced by Siân Phillips), who also rhythmically counts out her daughters steps.
May pleas with her mother to remove the carpet so she can hear her own foot steps. To which her mother responds: “there is no sleep so deep I would not hear you there”
It gives the impression that May is some sort of ghostly apparition doomed to walk the same weary insomniac footfalls for eternity.
Another bells chimes as an elderly woman takes to her rocking chair in Rockaby. Except for the rocking, she sits motionless most of the time responding only to the voice of her own repetitive words that are possibly from the beyond.
Time seems to be slipping away for her, and as she drifts in and out of consciousness she seems to be desperately clinging on to life with each cry of “More!” Her hypnotic reiterations about cessation are embodied by the echoes of her own words ‘time she stopped.’
Footfalls and Rockaby are perfectly placed in the intimate space of the Jermyn Street Threatre. Charlotte Emmerson encapsulates the tormented emotional prison of her character, while Sian Phillips gives two beautifully controlled performances for both pieces.
Richard Beecham executes a needle-like focus to the poetic nuances of Beckett’s script, and at the same time respects the author’s restrictive stage directions.