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Lisa Dwan gives an impressive performance in this trying Samuel Beckett stage premiere
In many ways I’d rather sit a further maths exam, naked, on national TV, than be asked to pass judgement on what’s being billed as a ‘new’ play by the avant-garde giant Samuel Beckett, a strong candidate for one of the most intimidatingly clever men who has ever lived.
‘No’s Knife’ is a monologue adaptation of Beckett’s short prose collection ‘Texts for Nothing’, performed by Lisa Dwan, the Irish actress responsible at the centre of the phenomenal revival of Beckett’s ‘Not I’ a couple of years back. Like ‘Not I’, ‘No’s Knife’ is a dense screed of text, dazzlingly articulated in a growling, cooing, chatty, seductive, warring, nostalgic, yearning babble of voices by Dwan, and subdivided into a quartet of mini-stagings by her and co-adaptor/director Joe Murphy. It’s often very impressive. But I really didn’t enjoy it at all that much.
I’m totally prepared to believe that this is partly the fault of my ravaged attention span, but for all the technical skill in Dwan’s performance, I found it genuinely difficult to follow the mercurial tumult of voices. Passages are brilliant, and the textures are wonderful. But it was only the final quarter in which Dwan seems to adopt to persona of a woman buoyantly floating away from a partner’s control that I really got a sense of a story coming through.
I can’t help but think a real problem is that these texts were intended for the page, and for all Dwan’efforts, ‘No’s Knife’ is utterly lacking in the sort of visionary staging that defines all of Beckett’s ‘true’ plays. (‘Not I’, for instance, is famously staged so it appears to be performed by a mouth floating in the dark.) In the first part, Dwan is lodged into a vertical rock face, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of ‘Happy Days’. In the third, she’s suspended from the ceiling in a sort of wooden desk. And in parts two and four she wanders around a rubble-strewn stage. There’s some projections, and a bit of trickery with pre-recorded vocals. They’re all fine for a dramatic reading. But it’s clearly not what Beckett would have done.s
Still, it’s an impressive performance from Dwan and a gutsy thing for Old Vic boss Matthew Warchus to programme on his massive, unsubsidised stage: a once-in-a-lifetime curio that Beckett devotees will want to check out, though casual punters might want to swot up first.