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Beckett’s horrifying monologue ‘Not I’ is an acid downpour of words from Mouth, an isolated woman who has finally found her voice. It doesn’t traditionally involve any biscuits, hedgehogs or penguins, but all that’s about to change as Jess Thom performs her unique take on the text. She founded arts company Touretteshero to smash stereotypes, and to embrace all the glee and creativity that comes from living with Tourette syndrome, a condition that means she says words like ‘biscuit’ and ‘hedgehog’ thousands of times a day.
Thom’s production offers a whole new way of seeing Beckett’s classic, one that’s filtered through her own experiences. ‘I was introduced to it at a time when my tics were intensifying,’ she says, ‘and I was finding it hard to recognise my own voice, biscuit. Lots of the experiences felt familiar, some so much so I found myself laughing out loud. Phrases like “mouth on fire” or “scream of words” – those are concepts I have a strong physical and emotional response to.’
The theatre canon is pretty short on characters with Tourette’s (or disabled characters full stop). Thom says she is ‘interested in claiming Mouth as a disabled character. She’s basically non-verbal, and then she utters these splurges of words, and that’s definitely something I can relate to!’
Performing ‘Not I’ is the ultimate endurance test for an actor: clocking in at less than 20 minutes, it’s no marathon, but Beckett’s stage directions are taxing. The goal is to reduce the performer to a tightly illuminated mouth, gabbing away at warp speed while suspended eight foot in the air. Previous performers have been rigged up in a harness and had their mouth held still with clamps. That wasn’t going to work with Thom’s tics, so she says ‘we imagined how we could do that for me. There’s a light in my hood so my mouth always remains in light but I don’t have to be still. Similarly, I am suspended in the air but we do it using a structure that was specially designed by a contemporary circus designer so hopefully you avoid the connotations of those really bondagey harnesses. It means I am safe, I can stay in my wheelchair, but I can still fulfil that stage direction.’
The precision-engineered darkness of Beckett’s play might seem like a massive departure from her previous show, ‘Backstage in Biscuit Land’. For that she dressed in lamé as her superhero alter ego Touretteshero, presiding over a freewheeling explosion of joy and silliness, inspired by her verbal tics. But as she explains: ‘Superficially “Not I” is very different from the warm and comic world of “Biscuit Land”, but lots of the politics and themes are here in this production. Both are about my belief that if you make theatre inclusive, you make it better.’
Thom has worked with Battersea Arts Centre to ensure every single performance at the venue is relaxed, which means people are free to come and go, and to make noise without getting a telling-off from a stranger. ‘People don’t think about the physical sensations of tics,’ she says. ‘ It’s actually very physically uncomfortable to try and make yourself be still or quiet.’
At most theatres, relaxed performances are only available for a few matinées for selected shows. ‘There’s this cultural curation, and disabled people weren’t getting to see works that were considered serious or rude or adult. With “Not I”, I wanted to explore how you could take an intense piece of theatre and make it accessible without reducing the intensity.’
Thom dresses up as a superhero for a reason: it’s because she has an awe-inspiring faith in the power of art to save the world. She’s spoken out about cuts to social care for disabled people, and the isolation they cause. Against this backdrop, Thom says including disabled people in the arts is essential. ‘It will mean we can work towards more inclusive communities. Seeing the same stories told by the same people in the same way gets boring. So we have to make sure – for the future of theatre – that difference is present, visible and valued.’
'Not I' is on at Battersea Arts Centre until 17th March.