161: Footfalls

29 Aug

A surprising and tender play by Samuel Beckett, Footfalls was written in 1976 for the actor Billie Whitelaw.

Billie Whitelaw with Samuel Beckett

Billie Whitelaw with Samuel Beckett in rehearsals for Footfalls

Footfalls is a short piece, with the lighting states and steps taken by the actor all written into the script. A woman, May, is seen on stage – or at least her feet are seen – as she paces back and forth across the same strip of floor. She talks and another woman, her mother, is heard answering her. The second woman is never seen, only heard.

I was never sure whether May’s mother actually existed or whether she was a figment of May’s imagination. It isn’t even clear whether May really exists. This is the sort of play that appears trapped somewhere between dreaming and waking. As the feet pace their endless circuit of the same strip of floor, the mother’s voice talks.

I say the floor here, now bare, this strip of floor, once was carpeted, a deep pile. Till one night, while still little more than a child, she called her mother and said, Mother, this is not enough. The mother: Not enough? May – the child’s given name – May: Not enough. The mother: What do you mean, May, not enough, what can you possibly mean, May, not enough? May: I mean, Mother, that I must hear the feet, however faint they fall. The mother: The motion alone is not enough? May: No, Mother, the motion alone is not enough, I must hear the feet, however faint they fall.

May is endlessly revolving something in her mind, rehashing something that happened (or didn’t happen) years before. She’s trapped in a moment in time, replaying it over and over as she paces.

Does she still sleep, it may be asked? Yes, some nights she does, in snatches, bows her poor head against the wall and snatches a little sleep.

This gentle, quiet piece is infused with a sense of dread as we are left to imagine the thoughts in May’s head and the event that set her on the path of her continuous pacing.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Cast: 2F (one onstage, one offstage)

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