This is theatre as endurance sport. Not on account of its length – I’ve had far longer nights in the theatre – but I have not hitherto experienced a more intense theatrical event than Samuel Beckett’s Not I.
In otherwise complete darkness (and I mean complete darkness), a disembodied female mouth, known simply as Mouth, floating eight feet above the stage, delivers a stream of consciousness – as Beckett directed – at the speed of thought.
Watching Lisa Dwan perform the play is the theatrical equivalent of – well, there is no equivalent. It is a marvel, and surely the most challenging role in theatre history. Anyone who hasn’t seen the level of physical restraint and face paint involved in performing Not I would do well to do watch Dwan’s explanation of what the play is like from behind the impenetrable wall of darkness.
The play itself is impossible to fully comprehend, but perhaps that’s the point. As Beckett himself has commented, he hoped the play would “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect”. As such, it is a play experienced in sad, isolated fragments: a poetic voice endeavouring to comprehend a world of utter darkness. Yet, somehow, it is one of the most exhilaratingly brilliant nine minutes you’re likely to spend in a theatre. What follows, in Footfalls and Rockaby, is a relentlessly intense 50 minutes which, though precisely realised by director Walter Asmus, simply can’t compare to Not I. But, then again, what could?
Footfalls features May, wrapped in tatters, pacing back and forth like a metronome on a strip of bare landing outside her dying mother’s room. While its formal and visual precision is easy to admire, it is a hard play to love. Rockaby, meanwhile, explores loneliness and features a prematurely old woman dressed in an evening gown, sitting on a wooden rocking chair that appears to rock of its own accord. Watching the play is akin to being stuck in a room with a broken record player, or an elderly relative, repeating over and over the same broken words.
Although I could admire them technically, the two plays, for whatever reason, felt largely distant to me. It was almost as though they were being performed at arm’s length. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the plays. They’re brilliant. Obviously, they’re brilliant, I mean it’s Beckett for goodness sake. Neither is there anything wrong with this production. The evening is realised with such stunning precision, in fact, that you’re unlikely to see a production come closer to the author’s prescribed directions. I could have just done with a bit more room for manoeuvre, and for interpretation.
The iron grip with which the Beckett estate guards the texts and monitors performances of his work has been widely documented. Indeed, they have even been known to issue injunctions against theatres in an attempt to stop performances which deviate from Beckett’s detailed stage directions. I think we have reached a point where we might need to move beyond such a narrow understanding of what Beckett’s work can be. I fear his plays risk becoming museum pieces: stunningly realised, but difficult to truly connect with. That is, unless directors and designers are given the opportunity to really interact with his remarkable work.
I realise there is more than an ounce of contradiction to my argument, given my waxing lyrical about Not I. Nevertheless, I don’t think it would be a crime for someone to mix it up a bit (although, I admit, even typing that does feel somewhat blasphemous).
The theatre is, after all, a collaborative medium. Arguably, increasingly so. Indeed, the primacy of the playwright is increasingly being challenged by new models of multi-authored and multi-disciplinary work in the twenty-first century. For a playwright who did so much to change the face of modern (and post-modern) drama, it would be a shame for Beckett’s work not to engage with these exciting new paradigms.
Not I / Footfalls /Rockaby is playing at the Royal Court until 18 January. The show is sold out but transfers to the Duchess Theatre, at Royal Court prices, from 3 February. For more information and tickets see the Royal Court Theatre website.