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BY JEFF MO
Three plays, one woman, one hour – so went the triple bill of Samuel Beckett’s later plays Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, performed by Irishwoman Lisa Dwan first at the Royal Court Theatre before transferring to the Duchess Theatre in the West End. Challenging works for the performer and the audience both, all three pieces are darkly tragic in nature, featuring troubled female protagonists whose lives seem to be accelerating into calamity. Dwan moves from one piece to the next, morphing into her new character with commendable ease.
The theatre was immediately plunged into darkness for Not I, where Beckett’s instructions allowed for only Dwan’s mouth to be seen – her face was painted with black grease and charcoal and she was fastened into a harness so as to prevent movement. This mouth, floating eight feet above the ground, immediately broke into a torrent of stream-of-consciousness outbursts, punctuated by yells of “what? … who? … no! … she!” Dwan’s blistering performance of this work lasted only a record nine minutes, particularly impressive considering that most renditions take between twelve and fourteen minutes with the same script.
Somehow the theatre faded out to an even darker black as Dwan comes back onstage in a white dress for Footfalls. Almost spectral, she played May, a middle-aged woman pacing outside her mother’s room. May’s mother, voiced by a recording of Dwan herself, described her daughter’s life in an almost belittling manner, referring to an unspecified incident in May’s adolescence that led to her current state of isolation. Dwan held the audience enrapt, the torment of May’s continued existence
Finally, Rockaby showed Dwan as a “prematurely old woman,” dressed once again in black to match the rest of the ambiance. By this point in the hour, however, it was difficult to maintain attention; Footfalls was performed in four acts, and for those uninitiated to Beckett, the distinction between Footfalls and Rockaby could have been made clearer. The monologue was of a style between those of Not I and Footfalls: not short outbursts or full thoughts in complete sentences, but rather like an e.e. cummings poem, related thoughts in free verse. While stunning for its despair, with Dwan’s stoic mannerisms holding out to the end, it was perhaps the most challenging of the three pieces by virtue of its order in the evening.
Unfortunately, the constant ringing of mobile phones distracted from the concentration which with Beckett intended these plays to be viewed. The interruptions were particularly irksome during Footfalls, when Dwan’s role called for her to stare out longingly into the audience. Although she never acknowledged any disturbance, her stage position gave the impression that she was waiting for the offender to turn off his mobile phone.
It would be difficult to truly appreciate the storylines without being familiar with them beforehand – Beckett’s scripts leave many things unsaid, many sentences as just fragments, and many ‘paragraphs’ disorganised. However, Dwan masterly evoked the mood of each piece with precision and subtlety. Not I was spastic and anxious, with words that seemed as though they needed to be uttered; Footfalls was reflective and measured; and Rockaby was perhaps the most forlorn, the protagonist sinking ever further into a psychological abyss. For that, and for her precise elocution during Not I, did she receive three separate rounds of applause at the end of the night.