Insane is not the kind of barb that would deter a company called Asylum. The pair persisted and the resulting premiere of a text written in 1964 has been one of the resounding triumphs of the Fringe Festival. The case for All Strange Away as a piece of theatre has now been forcefully made. It may not quite be up there with Beckett's most celebrated monologues - Krapp's Last Tape, say, or Rockaby - but, judging by the approval with which it has been greeted, it's clear that the critical re-evaluation has only just begun.
You can see why All Strange Away might have lain in obscurity for so long. It remained unpublished for over 10 years, the author himself not seeming to know what to do with it. In his massive biography of the writer, Damned to Fame, James Knowlson briefly mentions that Beckett was working in French and English on a new prose text that, for a long time, refused to assume any sort of satisfactory shape. The eventual outcome was an over-complex text in English.
Certainly, on the page, All Strange Away is an arduous business: it reads like a bundle of fastidious, syntax-free notes: a steady stream of hypothetical assemblings and dismantlings, in which every imaginative step is measured with deadly, mathematical accuracy - a kind of clockwork wordplay, where the clock hand keeps jumping back.
Take these lines, for example: "Imagine light. No visible source, glare at full, spread all over, no shadow, all six planes shining the same, slow on, ten seconds on earth to full, same off, try that." Imagine page after page of that.
But when the same words are uttered in a monotone hush by Mark Stuart Currie, in near-darkness, eyes closed, an anonymous, young man in a suit, crouched absurdly in a children's sandpit, the effect is thrilling. Through the pitter-patter of puns and adjectives, we catch a disturbing, muted narrative.
And in that narrative, Nigel Roper, the director, believes, may lie the reason why Beckett played down All Strange Away. "I just don't think he put it in a drawer and forgot about it," he says.
For one thing, there is sexually explicit language, which would still have caused him problems in those days. More importantly, there's a recurrent image of a woman in the text, who matches descriptions of the woman he fell passionately in love with at university, Ethna MacCarthy. It was a relationship that was never consummated. All Strange Away was written five years after her death, but her husband was still alive. Beckett had been previously embarrassed when people pointed out certain connections between his life and his early work, and had resolved never to let that happen again.
In the piece, the speaker fixates on a woman called Emma, picturing her as a passive, almost lifeless, object within a space as inhospitable as a mausoleum. His anatomisation of her is clinical, surgical and explicit ("Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on by all that, no sound"). When Currie's eyes open, they suggest the deadness, not of a psychopath, but of someone worn out by grief and loss.
As he tenderly manipulates a small doll into various positions, like some autistic puppeteer ("Emma lying on her left side, arse to knees along diagonal db with arse towards d and knees towards b though neither at either"), we sense that his absolute concentration is a mechanism against appalling absence.
The whole thing could be described as a process of relentless scene-setting, building towards a vanishing point where all that remains is a faint memory of lying, side-by-side.
It required a bold leap of faith, however, to believe that this could hold an audience for 50 minutes. Roper chanced across the text in a rare American edition of Beckett plays in Reading University library, earlier this year: "It was the most unusual and compulsive monologue that I'd ever read. I assumed that it had been done countless times before and that it was a gap in my knowledge. I was stunned to discover that, apart from a performance at La Mama Theatre in New York in 1984, no one had done it. How to do it right, though, that was the question."
There were none of Beckett s notoriously precise stage directions. On one hand, this was something of a blessing: the Beckett estate is a fearsome guard of the playwright's intentions (as Deborah Warner discovered to her cost when it blocked a tour of her split-level Footfalls).
On the other, they were anxious to respect the spirit of the piece. "The first thing we did in rehearsals was to show and tell everything in the text," Roper explains. "We even played it for laughs. Then we began discarding anything that didn't work, simplifying and centralising everything. The desire at each stage was to do less, to a point where almost nothing happens and yet something happens."
Edward Petherbridge, currently performing his acclaimed RSC version of Krapp's Last Tape (a golden opportunity to compare and contrast the two works), has a similar paradox to describe his portrayal of Beckett's solitary old spool-player: "It's a play in which one is constantly in danger of doing too much, but you can never come away from it confident that you've done enough."
Less is more with Beckett and, not surprisingly, Asylum's minimalistic approach has reaped dividends. Representatives from the Beckett estate came to see it and gave it the thumbs-up, and four major London venues have expressed a desire to take the show after Edinburgh.
Although this is not the first stage adaptation of a Beckett piece deemed to be prose (actors Jack MacGowran, David Warrilow and George Tabori all had a crack, with Beckett's permission), Dr Julian Garforth, of the Beckett International Foundation, believes the success of All Strange Away could have a significant impact on future productions of Beckett: "Because this adaptation has been given permission to go ahead and worked, Asylum may have set a precedent for other people to ask the estate if they can do different things."
But this kind of adaptation may well pave the way for other interesting prose adaptations. Not that Asylum have got their minds too set on the long term: the concern right now is how they're going to dash from the Pleasance to the Assembly Rooms when the performance does overlap this weekend, lugging eight bags of sand. Imagine that.
`All Strange Away', Pleasance (0131-556 6550) to 31 August, and concurrently at the Assembly Rooms; `Krapp's Last Tape', Assembly Rooms (0131-226 2428) to 5 September; quotations from `All Strange Away' by kind permission of Calder Publications (0171-633 0599)Reuse content