One of the most thrilling theatrical events last year was seeing Lisa Dwan performing the three Beckett monologues NOT I, FOOTFALLS and ROCKABY, so when it was announced that she was going to appear this month at the Old Vic in Beckett's NO'S KNIFE I was very keen to see it.
After a particularly awful week - including walking out of the dreadful TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA at the Globe - boy, did I want to drown in Beckett's particular brand of existential nihilism. NO'S KNIFE didn't disappoint in that respect, but maybe it did in other ways.
Lisa Dwan doesn't make things easy for either herself or us - NO'S KNIFE is a 70 minute monologue which is based on a collection of Beckett's writings published in 1967 under the title TEXTS FOR NOTHING.
In five 'movements', a voice calls out from another place, of the earth but not of the earth; possibly beneath the earth, buried in a peat bog, by turns wheedling, aggressive, plaintive, argumentative, lonely, lost. That voice is personified by Dwan, who is first seen squeezed into a crack in a rocky landscape, then appearing, Lear-like, on a blasted heath. She then appears floating above the stage and finally walks down from the stage to address us close-up.
She is a mesmerizing actress who knows how to hold an audience, but dear God, most of the Old Vic audience felt they should make it an interactive event; every time the lights dimmed to signal the end of a particular 'act' off they went: COUGH HACK SPLUTTER COUGH COUGH... it was utterly absurd and totally disrespectful to Dwan.
Co-directed by Dwan and Joe Murphy, the production had a haunting other-worldly look from both set designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and their vision was also helped by a mood-setting video piece from Andrzej Goulding...
...but, but, but... why did it leave me cold whereas NOT I, FOOTFALLS and ROCKABY totally gripped me? I think the answer is somewhere in the fact that these texts were never really meant to be performed in the theatre. Beckett wrote them as literary pieces although he did allow them to be read on radio in 1974 by Beckett stalwart Patrick Magee, in a hushed non-theatrical style.
Beckett was an individual playwright, everything distilled down to the absolute essence but more importantly, he wrote them to be presented in the theatre for a reason. I am sure if Beckett had wanted these writings to be theatrical he would have made them so; this had the vague feeling of "let's do these to give Lisa Dwan another chance to do Beckett monologues on stage". We were there to listen but not to see.
Dwan is such a remarkable performer however that she made the enterprise worthwhile - I wonder when she will get around to HAPPY DAYS?