While we should all feel jolly clever that works as mind-expandingly challenging as Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ and ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ are mainstays of our theatre canon, don’t be under any illusions: those plays are the great Irish dramatist’s pop songs, his greatest hits, his One Direction years.
This, my friends, is the hard stuff, a trio of challenging, formally experimental monologues written between 1972 and 1980, bundled together into a 55-minute package by director Walter Asmus and the extraordinary performer Lisa Dwan.
Beckett’s estate is famously prickly about letting anybody monkey with the master’s exacting stage directions. But Asmus and Dwan find room for expression. For starters, opener ‘Not I’ – in which a disembodied mouth floating in the dark relates her life story at breakneck speed – gains from both the world record nine minutes in which Dwan rattles it off, and the disorientating total blackness it’s performed in: Dwan’s drifting teeth and tongue are literally the only things you can see in the entire room. It’s the persistency of this darkness – considerably beyond what Beckett called for – that defines the production, seeping into the unsettling ambient interludes between works, giving all three pieces the same sense of being in a limbo outside time and space.
In ‘Footfalls’ a faintly lit Dwan paces the stage metronomically, conversing with, channelling, perhaps even switching with the voice of her mother. In ‘Rockaby’, she sits in a rocking chair picked out by the wanest of lights, occasionally barking at her own recorded voice, which whispers a morbid lullaby.
What does it all mean? All three seem trapped in desperately confined lives – in ‘Not I’ the narrator tries to scream her entire experience out; in ‘Rockaby’ she has come to a complete standstill; in ‘Footfalls’ she appears trapped between selves. But to try and cogently comprehend it all strikes me as a mistake. The staggering speed with which Dwan unleashes ‘Not I’ burns the words and ruptures the language, and surely confirms this as a sensual, sensory experience. The production is precise and technically exacting. But Dwan’s virtuosic performance is not a cerebral one – it’s more primal than that, a dark night of the soul experienced in unnerving triplicate.
By Andrzej Lukowski