For nine years Patrick Marber has grappled with writer’s block (which by some miracle doesn’t affect his screenplay work), but the pipes are now ungummed and wallop! his new bolus of creativity splatters across the Dorfman stage. It’s a wordy three-hander set in the swamp of non-league football. Marber brilliantly captures the grubbiness and despairing optimism of ageing sportsmen who inhabit a golden age that never was.
We meet Kidd, a hopeless but garrulous manager, as he tussles with Yates, a lugubrious old kit-man, for a controlling stake in a dazzling young talent, Jordan. The emotional terrain is lifted directly from Pinter and Mamet: male losers fighting over scraps of nothing. But where Pinter and Mamet use hints and shades to suggest isolation, Marber whacks it straight into the script. This club is all we have, bleat the characters. And there’s no warmth or amity between them. Exploitation and bad faith are the basis of their squabbles.
As the plot develops, the play’s configuration works against it, with the second act far longer than the first (better the other way around). The woman next to me yawned a lot. Marber’s spare, muscular dialogue is the major selling-point. There are great set-piece speeches recounting famous last-gasp victories won on mud-pie pitches against murderous oppositions. But some of the natter gets soggy. Yates recalls scoring a winner as a young hopeful. ‘I was never so loved. Nor loved this life so strong.’ In a Yorkshire accent it sounds like the Hovis advert. In Yates’s dialect, Cockney, it sounds forced.
And Marber’s characterisation goes awry. Young Jordan hints at his criminal past but he’s too naïve to summon his agent during contract negotiations. Offered a trial at Birmingham City, he moans that he’s being frozen out by non-league football. He even contemplates skipping the trial and continuing as a no-hoper on zero wages. What muppet would do that? Morally, he’s unfathomable. At first he’s a pious Christian who hates cheats. Later he’s a greedy liar who uses a screwdriver as a weapon. No sense there.
During rehearsals actors are supposed to anatomise a script line by line and grill the author about their characters’ motives. This inquisition uncovers and resolves illogicalities but it seems to have failed here. Perhaps over-reverence for Marber stifled honest debate. The same worshipful attitude seeped into the press-night crowd, who responded with dutiful, rather than jubilant, approval at the curtain call. Next morning the play won a host of four-star raves from the national dailies. Little wonder. The chunky papers are more like a collective West End fanzine these days. They prefer anodyne gush-jobs to disinterested critiques. Few reviewers lampoon plays regularly. I do. So does Quentin. But honeyed idolatry is unreadable and cheats punters of the truth.
Beckett is one writer it’s impossible to knock. All complaints levelled against him should, according to his fans, be celebrated as virtues. He’s obscure (enigmatic), pretentious (ground-breaking), bogus (visionary), humourless (hilarious), self-regarding (single-minded), elitist (erudite), infantile (playful), depressing (fearless) and so on. All That Fall, a radio play from 1956, is replete with Beckettian faults (excellences), which supporters will relish and detractors revile. I found it slightly boring, occasionally funny, entirely pointless and rather enjoyable. Play-goers experience the show seated in whitewashed rocking chairs (a nod to Watt, for the cognoscenti) surrounded by saffron torchlight that blazes and fades according to the dramatic mood. This contrived arrangement is beautifully restful.
Beckett’s threadbare plot introduces us to Mrs Rooney, a jabbering crone, who travels to a train station to fetch her blind husband home to their rural cottage. Mrs Rooney is a prototype for Winnie from Happy Days (the script dates from the same year), but her witterings are more engaging because her mission is clear-cut and she interacts with lots of characters along the way. Her background is a puzzle. She’s elderly, with adult children, but she mourns the loss of an infant whose death may have been violent. Did her husband have a hand in it? Uncertain. Other symbolic obscurities pop up. Senility represents deliverance; dung emblemises prosperity; roads and railways are an imaginary, or perhaps a genuine, setting for death.
As I eased back on my tilting throne with these variegated motifs swirling around in my head I suddenly had a light-bulb moment. Flash! Of course! It’s deliberate. Beckett weaves these interconnected pluralities into his scripts as a guarantee of lasting fame with academia. He himself had pursued a university career as a Proust specialist after graduating, so he knew his audience intimately. He calculated that the play-going public might tire of his elusive, and allusive, works but the pipe-smoking professors would always cherish his riddles. The sly old dog.