In a way you know what you get with Beckett. The sparse, unsentimental text; the ghostly, post-apocalyptic staging. But a new performance or, even more excitingly in this case, a new work, brings an intellectual and emotional ferocity that is entirely fresh, wholly demanding and completely enthralling.

No’s Knife is a collection of three previously unperformed prose works, originally published in Texts for Nothing. Each is brought to the stage by Lisa Dwan, by now established as her generation’s foremost Beckett performer. Dwan is, in a word, magnificent. As her expansive but exacting vocal range commands the scurrying, looping rhythms of the text, she creates a sense that she is not portraying a character but channelling something more elemental. The figures she represents are not narrative tools (for no plot will be found here), but disembodied consciousness for whom the certainties of our material world are stripped away.

Dwan’s figures are caught in a void and grapple with a swirling maelstrom of voices, memories, hopes and aspirations that cut to fundamental questions of existence. This is brought out by the stunning video art at the beginning of the show, where an eye morphs into a slowly gyrating body, suggestive of the womb, or perhaps a watery purgatory, conjuring the liminal, undefined spaces that pervade the performance.

The Old Vic’s staging engages with a central question in the interpretation of Beckett: are these texts pure abstraction, a howl at the absurdity and cruelty of simply existing, or are they metaphors and allegories for more grounded, contemporary issues? The answer of course, lies somewhere in between. The questions that the works inspire- what does it mean to be a gendered individual, how is it possible to live if your voice is marginalised- are equally applicable to Beckett’s context (the threat of nuclear holocaust), our own (the refugee crisis) or can be viewed as wholly trans-historical existential concerns. A small point, perhaps, but this staging opens up the possibility for these interpretations rather than prescriptively shutting them down.

If anything can be said to tie the three pieces together it is the question of how to deal with our status as embodied minds. The flitting, floating creatures are obsessed with the enormity and absurdity of living with something so concrete, but yet so abstract and porous, as a body. The polyphonic cacophony contained within their voices draws attention to that fact that our identities, indeed our very survival, are inextricably caught up with other people. But we are simultaneously alone, cut off from making real and lasting connections free from avarice and self-interest. How, then, are we supposed to live?

As we are plunged into darkness at the performance’s close, the audience is joined in a kind of ad hoc, mish-mash of a community, brought together by the tour de force that unfolded before us. But we are also newly reminded of our existential isolation. In that moment we are left struggling with what we have just witnessed, struggling with ourselves and how to make sense of the expansive blankness of our life’s journey. But a glimmer of hope is visible: we realise that “a story is not compulsory. Just a life.”

No’s Knife is playing at the Old Vic until October 15.

Photo: Tristram Kenton