not i . . . but i was there . . .

in the pitch black . . .  a mouth emerges floating . . . words begin . . . she speaks fast unstoppable a terrible troubled disembodied outpouring . . . snatches of memories cowslips tears falling into a palm realisation they must be hers . . . the one time she cried . . . in the pitch black you listen transfixed . . . to the poetry the music in the rapid-fire utterances . . . denial of self . . . bitter laughter at a merciful god . . . in this tight small space this tight small life of a mouth a voice alone richness of language despite all . . . a brief rift in the void . . .  a consciousness trapped in its unceasing patter . . . not I . . .  she . . . fading still chattering . . .

how impossible, really, to convey the intense, moving, high-impact experience of being part of the audience at the Royal Court Theatre to see Lisa Dwan perform Samuel Beckett’s stunning short play Not I. An emotional tour de force, and for the actor an almost athletic achievement. Beckett wanted the piece spoken at the speed of thought, an impossible task, but Lisa Dwan comes close. After her performance, there was a screening of an interview with Billie Whitelaw, made in 2009, in which Whitelaw described the impact Not I had on her – how it will never leave her – and her affection for Beckett, who directed her in the role. Then Vicky Featherstone, artistic director at the Royal Court, lead a question and answer session with Roger Michell, who worked with Beckett as assistant director on a Production of Happy Days, and Lisa Dwan – once she’d got her breath back! Dwan gave a fascinating insight into the difficulties of learning the text and the physical demands of performing the piece. She practises constantly, with her head tied between banisters wherever possible. She talked about the three types of memory she calls on: aural memory (the music and poetry in the text), narrative memory (for there is a narrative, albeit fractured and interrupted), and page memory (visualising the script, the words on the page). For each performance, her face is covered in black make-up, apart from her lips, she’s blindfolded, her head strapped so it can’t move, her arms similarly restricted, ‘and then I go like the clappers,’ as she put it. While she’s performing the piece, she said it feels like she’s flying, and talked of it ‘playing itself out on your nervous system’. No wonder she describes it as terrifying, and just wanting it to be over, at the same time as wanting to speak every word, honour every brief pause. She, like Whitelaw, feels Not I will stay with her forever; that she is that trapped voice. A truly memorable evening.

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