Could you have a better meeting of material and performer? Mouth, the protagonist of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’, is a woman who finds herself unable to stop speaking. Jess Thom has Tourette’s; her speech is peppered with involuntary utterances, from ‘biscuit’ to, well,
‘Beckett’. When she first read his play, she felt like it had been written about her.
We know this because her production of ‘Not I’ is contextualised by open, cheery discussion about the play and her own life experiences. Having often felt excluded from theatres, this is naturally a ‘relaxed’ performance, with the audience free to move or make sounds. Thom is a wonderfully warm performer, both putting an audience at ease and pushing them to consider what this text, and more widely what theatre itself, could and should look like.
Which is interesting, given that what this play looks like is usually so circumscribed. Quite literally: it’s almost torturous for the actress, strapped down and raised eight feet in the air, only their mouth spot-lit, speaking as fast as they can. This was never going to work for Thom, who is a wheelchair user, and has many physical tics. She is raised on a platform, but there’s no strapping; she wears a hoodie with LEDs sewn into it so that, however she moves, the lower half of her face is illuminated.
The Beckett estate have a reputation as sticklers, yet they were apparently “incredibly supportive” of the show. Smart move. Thom’s performance is itself illuminating.
Just as her vocal tics disrupt yet revivify the script, so too her motor tics, including involuntary chest-beating, bring out something new. This is a physical, rhythmical rendition of Not I, nudging towards spoken word or rap, a bodily urgency adding to the text’s
Thom also shares a stage with a BSL interpreter, Charmaine Wombwell, translating every word into fluid, rapid movements. At first, I wondered if this, although admirably inclusive, might be a distraction. But if it dilutes the intense surreal image of a single floating mouth, it also offers a broader understanding of how compulsive, uncontrollable expression can come in many forms.
But you could almost miss the biggest intervention Thom makes: she asks us to join her in saying 'I' before she begins. Throughout the monologue, Mouth refuses to own her story: 'who? No! She!' For a long time, Thom also didn’t want to acknowledge her situation, either.
Tourette’s was ‘it’, not ‘I’.
Now, she’s more self-accepting. It is societal barriers to participation make her disabled, not the way her brain and body behaves: “Diversity is beautiful, and we are not the problem.”