Theatre: The clockwork wordplay whose time has come

Samuel Beckett's bizarre, explicit monologue All Strange Away has been buried for years. But then he never knew what to do with it himself.

When they declared their intention to stage a work by Samuel Beckett called All Strange Away, Nigel Roper and Mark Stuart Currie were met either with blank looks or raised eyebrows. Beckett's theatre agents, Curtis Brown, were stumped by their request for the rights to perform it, as they had never heard of it. Everett Frost, at the Beckett International Foundation, who had heard of it, told them that they were probably insane.

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 It remained unpublished for over 10 years, the author himself not seeming to know what to do with it.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)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine