Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Some theatre visits you look forward to more than others and ever since I booked to see the three Samuel Beckett monologues NOT I, FOOTFALLS and ROCKABY I had been getting more and more excited as the day got nearer.

Cut to the day of the show and I was excited - even sitting in the Pit Theatre at the Barbican waiting for it to start in the blacked-out auditorium which is the setting for NOT I, I was genuinely, butterflies-in-stomach excited... and I have not felt that for a production in quite a while.  I was not disappointed.

So what had made me get in such a tremulous state?  It was the fact that this was the first time I have ever experienced these monologues live.  I had seen Billie Whitelaw's filmed versions from the 1980s but to see them live is the best way to experience them although, with the sad news of Billie's death in December still fresh in my mind, it was always going to be emotional, especially as the actress Lisa Dwan had been coached by Billie when she first started the trilogy - Billie almost conducting her in rehearsals just as Beckett had done with her.

With the exit signs covered up and with all the house lights off we were plunged into pitch blackness and the tension that had been building up as the house manager read us 'the rules' for watching the plays suddenly ratcheted up.  Straining to hear something, anything, soon we heard the black curtains swish apart and slowly a single spotlight revealed a pair of vivid red lips hovering high above the stage.

The mouth started the monologue with it's lightning-fast delivery -  Beckett wanted to suggest the speed of thought aloud - and it was one of the most thrilling, dazzling things I have ever experienced.  I am aware that I am saying 'experienced' a lot but that is exactly what it felt like, not simply observing a performance passively but watching in awe and some slight feeling of terror.

The mouth - surely the inspiration for the opening of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW! - jabbers away for nearly ten minutes, moving forever onwards deeper into oblique memories but repeating, words, phrases again and again only to be admonish itself with the shouted statement "What.... who.... no..... SHE!"  Remarkably for what it is, there was every opportunity for the odd laugh as Lisa Dwan found the humour in Mouth's rattling prattling.

Slowly the music and the poetry take you over and you begin to formulate an idea - a woman is unloved from her premature birth and at a certain point while in a field she found herself lying on the ground with a relentless buzzing in her ears.  An illusion to a courtroom is there too but your mind races to make sense of what you are hearing and just as soon as you feel submerged by it all, the light fades and the voice is stilled.

It was quite, quite breathtaking, a theatre experience like none other.  The power of theatre to make an indelible visual image,  the playwright's words as sonic overload while also you are aware of the humanity of the performer who is having to deliver it.  Billie Whitelaw in her autobiography writes of the physical endurance of performing NOT I, the first time she was left an emotional wreck during the dress rehearsal, so much so that Beckett left the Royal Court and didn't return for several days to relieve some of the pressure that his presence had added to and she admits that although she did it two years later, again at the Court, that the experience changed her forever.

The physical endurance for Whitelaw included being strapped into a chair to perform it with clamps on either side of her head to hold it steady for the spotlight.  Lisa Dwan goes through a similar ordeal, standing with her head held in place by straps and with her arms pressed behind a bar to keep the tension going through her.

Back to the blackness for a short pause - broken by low, ominous rumblings - and the curtains swished aside again for the lights to dimly reveal Dwan in a long white dress, her arms held in a locked embrace in front of her, walking to and fro, nine steps back and forth, with the dull clumping of her heels on the wooden platform announcing the arrival of FOOTFALLS.  Dwan, shimmered pearl-grey in the dim light.

A woman, May, walks back and forwards outside the room of her mother who we assume is dying but May walks and walks as the mother's voice tells us that her daughter has walked back and forwards like that since a child.  A single hollow bell announces a break in the monologue and each time it starts May gets slower and more deliberate in her pacing. The mother addresses us, then May telling the story of a woman called Amy.  Is the mother dead?  Is May dead?  Does her ghost walk the house where they both died?  In the last 'stanza' the dim light comes up to reveal that May has vanished.

After the explosive NOT I, the deliberate pacing (no pun intended) of FOOTFALLS did mean that it felt excessively long and I found myself drifting once or twice.

Billie Whitelaw says in her book that while in rehearsals for FOOTFALLS in 1976, again at the Royal Court, she asked Beckett the only question she ever asked him about his plays, "Am I dead?"  He slowly replied "Well, let's just say you are not quite there".

After being consumed by the darkness again the curtains swished apart for the last time to reveal Dwan, this time as the old woman who inhabits ROCKABY, slowly rocking away in her rocking chair, dressed in her ornately embroidered Edwardian-style black dress.  It is similar in tone to FOOTFALLS as we watch a faded figure of a woman slowly edging towards death, perfectly still apart from the rocking of the chair and the circling thoughts in her head "close of a long day" and "time she stopped, time she stopped".

Every so often, at the beginning of a new 'stanza', the woman will open her eyes and implore for "More...", for what?  More time? More memories?  Slowly the rocking chair comes to a halt and the woman slowly stops too.  Again, Beckett gives us an arresting visual image but unlike the longer FOOTFALLS, ROCKABY feels just right, the perfect length for the profound poetry.

I wondered whether Lisa Dwan would actually take a curtain call, would that break the spell that had been woven through the three plays?  But she did and as she bowed and smiled it was like we were all congratulating having come through the pure existance of Beckett's women into the light - literally so as it was very disconcerting to leave the Barbican and walk out into warm sunny weather.

Thank you Sam, thank you Billie, thank you Lisa.

"And the end came.  Close of a long day...".

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