No’s Knife, Old Vic, London — assessment

For 12 years, Lisa Dwan was recognized to theatregoers only as an illuminated mouth on an otherwise blacked-out stage, attempting the land speed record for Samuel Beckett’s glossolalic monologue Not I. With the passing of Billie Whitelaw, she has turn into most likely the foremost committed female interpreter of Beckett in English. Now she turns her focus to a selection from his 1950-52 prose pieces Texts for Practically nothing.

A enormous closed eye projected on a front cloth opens the pupil expands till we appear to fall into it, to see blurred shots of Dwan underwater, with vague ideas of the womb. The four scenes themselves, nonetheless, are much more characteristic of Beckett’s assorted afterlife scenarios, or other kinds of un-life. Dwan, clad in a dark shift and leather leggings with bloody grazes, perches in a fissure on a rock face, strides through a wasteland or sits above it in a cage, giving accounts of … what? Of the Beckett usuals: existence, isolation, relationships which aren’t at all, selections, compulsions and coercions — the different approaches we construct an identity from shards and wisps. “A story is not compulsory, just a life,” observes Dwan’s character (character?) at one particular point.

It’s an odd idea, but these early prose pieces — written around the same time as his novel trilogy and ahead of the 1953 French premiere of En attendant Godot — look a tiny overwritten compared with his theatre work, as if the absence of an actual speaker meant that the language had to labour tougher. But it provides Dwan far more scope to stretch herself: she interrupts herself with parenthetical lines trumpeted, chirruped and growled, and in 1 scene with her own recorded voice. In the finish she even breaks the fourth wall, stepping on to the apron to deliver the final phase of the fourth scene.

This makes explicit an undercurrent all through the 70-minute evening, which is that of introducing gender as a consideration. These pieces were by and large written with a male figure in thoughts, but the mild subversion of earlier scenes comes into stark concentrate with the final narrative of a tortured non-relationship. Beckett famously wrote “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail far better.” Lisa Dwan fails brilliantly.

To October 15,

Section: Arts