Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Walter Asmus
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
In the 1970s, already in his mid sixties, Samuel Beckett really began to achieve the minimalism he’d strived for throughout his career. As aging and self-imposed isolation began to directly inform his writing, he started to create increasingly compact, and increasingly absurd, performance pieces. Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby are three of these works from 1973, 1976 and 1982.
Minimalist they may be, simple they are not. With their demanding stage directions, these short plays are a challenge for everyone from the Performer to the Lighting Designer. Not I requires a full blackout of the stage and auditorium save for a tiny spotlight illuminating the performer’s mouth. Pacing: starting with right foot (r), from right (R) to left (L), with left foot (l) from L to R announces the first page of the Footfalls text. Beckett’s plays are so much more that a text, determining the look and feel of the piece, creating an aural, visual and emotional atmosphere and an unrepentantly charged and controlled tone.
Actor Lisa Dwan performs all three solo works in this Royal Court production, slickly directed by Walter Asmus. Not I is a babble of words, an often unintelligible stream of consciousness which rises and falls like song, pierced with laughs and screams as the voice, coming from a disembodied mouth, recalls random memories, speaking at the pace of thought. It’s a challenging piece of performance to start the night with. Plunged into darkness there’s a sudden assault from the stage, from the eerie floating, shouting mouth.
The other two pieces have a very different tempo, the haunting simplicity of Footfalls is at odds with its eerie sense of stifled insanity. A young woman paces the floor outside her dying mother’s room, talking to her mother, to herself, in her mother’s words. Whether on the other side of the door or in her head, the older woman shares terrible secrets that have produced this damaged, pacing daughter. Dwan appears spectre-like, pale-skinned and slender in a long white dress, evoking actual gasps from the audience when she enters the stage. Her vocal and physical performances are mesmerising, her voice sometimes an other-worldly growl, sometimes fading to a whisper.
The glorious simplicity and repetitiveness of Rockaby completes the interval-free hour. In a rocking chair an old woman rocks away the hours by her window. It’s an astonishingly sad portrayal of loneliness, a fight against futility as she recalls memories, turning them over in her mind in a desperate attempt to push away death. Dwan’s recorded voice is overlaid with her own, creating a collage of sound, an echo of memory.
There’s an interesting dilemma for this fantastic Royal Court production which saw a sell-out run in the West End, and which is about to embark on an international tour. It should be filling larger auditoriums than this, giving people the opportunity to see beautifully produced and performed versions of little-seen plays, but even the Lowry’s Quays Theatre is too big to take full advantage of the necessary intimacy. The mouth in Not I is almost entirely lost in the blackness, and would certainly have a more absurdist quality close up. The closer you can get to Dwan’s disturbing performances the better. Get a seat – but get one at the front.
Runs until 28th September 2014