Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Walter Asmus
Reviewer: George Attwell Gerhards
It is much easier to review something when it is close to being objectively good or bad. For instance a stellar cast can transform a drab play but in equal measure some slack direction can completely lose the focus of the audience. These are the closest things you can get to certainties in theatre criticism. What is harder, and what is the case for this production of three short Samuel Beckett plays Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby is when appreciation is dependent so much on taste. Approaching this triple bill with no prior knowledge or experience of Beckett (beyond knowing that he wrote Waiting for Godot) it is immediately clear from a fresh pair of eyes that he is divisive like few other playwrights before him.
You arrive at the Birmingham Rep’s studio and are told on the door that all three plays will take place in complete darkness – that even the fire exit signs will be turned off. Taking your seat you wait with a mixture of excitement and apprehension until the lights begin to slowly fade to pitch black – where you cannot see your hand in front of your face or your fellow audience members sitting around you – and the bizarre experience that is Not I begins. A dim concentrated beam of light (so dim as to not even seem like a light at all, instead giving the impression that what you see simply emerges out of the darkness; it works brilliantly) falls on a floating mouth, a mouth which spends a few moments establishing itself “out…into this world” and then we’re off. Machine gunning through a stream of consciousness the mouth (performed with amazing articulacy by Lisa Dwan, who performs all three plays) goes on and on (for how long is impossible to say, the sense of time passing is completely lost) before slowing down and fading away. Experientially, it is a masterpiece. The feeling throughout that you are alone with this mouth, that it is talking only to you, is an incredibly satisfying one. Similarly, as your eyes try to make sense of what it is seeing the mouth seems to move in the darkness; change shape; get bigger and smaller – all of which are impossible as it’s unlikely Dwan moves during the monologue. However, and here is where the above point about taste comes into play, it is incredibly difficult to listen to a single word the mouth says. It is impossible to give you a précis of the plot, as your reviewer remains as clueless about the play afterwards as before. It is unclear whether the fault lies with Dwan and her incredibly rapid delivery but it seems like that is how it should be delivered. Instead, perhaps, the problem lies with the play itself – Beckett creating something to be performed that should in fact be read to be understood. Struggling to understand exactly what this is all about the Beckett experience failed to permeate beyond the experiential.
After Not I comes Footfalls which loses the intense edge of the former by having more of the stage lit and therefore the room lightens slightly. There is still a noticeable eeriness about the play, James Farncombe’s impressive lighting design giving Dwan a detached ghost-like quality and the creaky footsteps that give the plays its name are reminiscent of a haunted house. Footfalls is also (slightly) more comprehensible than Not I. It takes the form of a conversation between a mother a daughter, the mother (just a voice) is very old and near death and the daughter appears to be a shadow of a person, lost in her metronomic pacing. Both their voices are slow and quiet, the mother having a raspy breathless hint to hers which brings shivers down upon the audience. Footfalls is probably the best of the three plays yet still relies too heavily on repetition and gets irksome the more it drags on.
Finally there is Rockaby. Whereas Not I is impressive and Footfalls discomforting; Rockaby is just boring. Maintaining the same aesthetic as Footfalls: the eerie blue white light; the darkness into which Dwan rhythmically falls in her rocking chair; it fails to chill in the same way as the former did and the continued use of repetition does nothing more lose interest.
However, to bring this full circle, it was painfully obvious that while to some the triple bill was vacuous or boring or pointless, to others it was incredibly moving – leaving them dazed and confused, but most importantly moved. So depending on your tastes, this might be for you after all.
Runs until20th September| Photo Justin Downing