Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 6 October 2016

Review: No’s Knife at the Old Vic

Old Vic ⋄ 29th September - 15th October 2016

Haunting beauty: Neil Dowden reviews Lisa Dwan’s performance of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing.

Neil Dowden
Lisa Dwan performing No's Knife at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Lisa Dwan performing No’s Knife at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

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. 

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Review: No’s Knife at the Old Vic Show Info


Directed by Joe Murphy and Lisa Dwan

Written by Samuel Beckett

Cast includes Lisa Dwan

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