Samuel Beckett’s more condensed, mainly later plays have become increasingly part of the repertoire in recent years alongside his classic major works like Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days. In the spirit of less is more, they strip back the human predicament to its bare essentials with a poetic preciseness that allows a multitude of interpretations.
The one-person show No’s Knife also has this quality of elliptical distillation although it is actually composed of Lisa Dwan’s selection from Texts for Nothing, 13 short non-narrative prose pieces that Beckett wrote in the early fifties on the back of his great trilogy of novels. Despite not being written for the theatre, the range of non-gender-specific ‘voices’ they contain lend them naturally to dramatic presentation.
The result is an intense, not to say gruelling, examination of identity, memory and consciousness expressed in almost abstract, musical language with haunting beauty over 70 minutes. There is ‘no need for a story’ as that would be an artificial distraction from confronting uncomfortable truths about the absurdity of human existence which don’t have a neatly ordered beginning, middle or end.
In this no man’s land betwixt soil, sea and sky the words, ‘I couldn’t stay there and I couldn’t go on’ echo the last lines of The Unnameable. Yet the seemingly unremitting bleakness is occasionally interrupted by flashes of black humour, such as the one-liner ‘nothing like breathing your last to put new life in you’ that only the existentialist vaudevillian Beckett could have written.
If Beckett is a master of the monologue, then it requires a masterly solo performer to execute it, and Dwan does this splendidly in a piece where there is no place to hide. She has of course become known as a bit of a Beckett specialist with her internationally touring Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby, after being mentored by famed Beckett collaborators director Walter Asmus and actress Billie Whitelaw. Her dynamic vocal range captures the texts’ different voices and changes in rhythm and tone. Also, paradoxically for such an incorporeal presence, she provides a highly physical performance clad only in a dark-brown slip, her legs covered in what looks like bloody earth.
Without Beckett’s usual sparing but essential stage directions, Dwan and co-director Joe Murphy have had to create a suitably otherworldly setting where being and non-being come together, and they do this pretty successfully. The show starts with Andrzej Goulding’s video projection of a closed eye in close-up, which suddenly opens alert as the pupil enlarges into a black hole through which we see Dwan apparently floating in amniotic fluid. The point of view then shifts with Christopher Oram’s design showing her as if stuck in the crevice halfway up a cliff-face, as well as standing in a barren rocky landscape and suspended mid-air in a sort of swing. Hugh Vanstone’s spot-lighting amid the gloom and Mic Pool’s echoing sound add to the eerie effect, while the resonant inhalation and exhalation of breath evokes the ebb and flow of the tide.
Full marks to Artistic Director Matthew Warchus for including this challenging show in his impressively varied programme at the Old Vic, even though this sizeable proscenium arch theatre is not the best venue for such a stripped-down work that would have an even greater impact in a more intimate space.
No’s knife is on until 15th October 2016 a the Old Vic. Click here for more details.