The straps, the strain, the speed: from John Nathan’s feature on the ‘gruelling demands’ Beckett’s plays often place on female performers to the BBC’s behind the scenes video, there’s a glimmer of the sideshow to any production of Beckett’s Not I. Lisa Dwan strobes through the monologue in a hair under nine minutes. That’s five minutes faster than Billie Whitelaw! You are right to be impressed. There’s surely no other play which attracts so much attention to its how’s and so little to its what’s and its why’s. Sure, Richard Burton was a pretty decent Hamlet, but my mate Clive can clear the whole thing in under an hour. Cleopatra is acknowledged to be a very challenging role – tell me, how do you get into that dress?
Perhaps it’s the play’s content that causes it to slip into the critical category of sporting achievement. It’s one of the more elliptical of Beckett’s works, there are few hand-holds on its dark, vibrating surface. Performances are hard to judge against the usual metrics. Clarity is vital, intensity too, but what else? A highly tuned voice and powerful memory, sheer effort and focus. And we’re back in the sports pages. Or Guinness. Not I? It’s a play for auctioneers, isn’t it?
Perhaps it’s not about the play itself, but the experience of viewing it. Not I moves too fast to see or hear, like the buzzing in the head that Mouth describes, the form in which it is experienced in the theatre is really an intricate movement performed too quickly for us to catch. Beckett spoke of the monologue being performed at ‘the speed of thought’, but it feels much faster than that. Dwan’s Mouth flickers and throbs like a pink orb in the darkness. Reports that it seems to move are accurate, it sways forwards and backwards as the eye tries and fails to make sense of it.
The play really exists in the memory (it certainly does not on the page), and less as a memory of a play than of a thing that happened in a room, or perhaps a thing that is happening in a room, its most terrible moments being those twittering fades in and out. Beckett is an unacknowledged master of gothic horror, and the mouth trapped in endless isolated glossolalia is indescribably terrible.
Whitelaw herself has proven to be Not I’s profoundest critic. The first woman to bring the beast ‘out…into this world’, she has remarked that where other playwrights might create a three act drama about a woman’s descent into madness, Beckett instead ‘just wrote it’. Mouth is neither a character nor an idea, instead it is the writer’s attempt to create the thing, to make the theatre of an object rather than a subject. Whitelaw described her preparations for taking the stage as a process of self-destruction, letting the ‘flesh fall off’, getting ‘out of the way’ to allow the thing that is Not I emerge. In this context, the media’s preoccupation with the play’s speed makes another kind of sense. Dwan’s achievement in delivering such a diamond-dense performance is to shave away a little more of the actor, of the polluting falsity of the theatre, from the immanation of Not I.
Not I is paired with two of Beckett’s more painterly plays. Both Footfalls and Rockaby are more explicitly gothic, their funeral parlour aesthetics and supernatural preoccupations are extensions of the Irish ghost story traditions of Sheridan La Fanu and Thomas Croker. Footfalls lodges hauntings within hauntings like a spectral Matryoshka doll. Dwan looks fantastically harrowed as May, clutching herself in a Miss Havisham pose in beams of ever dimming light. Speaking personally, I’ve never enjoyed watching it, and even in this pedigree production the use of recorded sound and some of Beckett’s blunter cobweb-creepy dialogue (‘Dress your sores? Sponge you down?’) leave it dangling treacherously close to self-parody.
Rockaby is similarly rhythmic and haunted, with a stage picture that looks for all the world like a Caravaggio tribute to Whistler’s Mother, and its grim repetitions are suffocatingly bleak. It’s one of the most elegant descriptions of the dying process, or of waiting for another to die, with its final lines of rage, gloom and inevitability: ‘stop her eyes/fuck life/stop her eyes/rock her off/rock her off’.
The effect of bringing these plays together is to make the contrast between Not I and the two later plays distinct. One is a play struggling to undo its own artfulness, Footfalls and Rockaby are practically lacquered. Dwan excels in all three, and director Walter Asmus presents them like a collection of gemstones against rich, impenetrable velvet.