Irish performer Lisa Dwan is fast becoming the go-to person for Samuel Beckett's work. She took Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby to the Royal Court and around the world, suffering physically in the process. Not I is the one which features just the actor's jabbering and disembodied mouth.
Now she has come up with a new solo show, No's Knife, her selection from Texts for Nothing, 13 fragmented prose pieces that were written in the early 1950s by Beckett and not intended for theatrical presentation. Beckett (and his estate) are notoriously strict about the presentation of the theatrical works but there is a problem for Dwan here in that without this stringency of stage directions she is totally unsupported in how to approach these pieces. She and co-director Joe Murphy have to find a physical setting and representation for these disjointed and haunted voices. They explore ideas around death and annihilation, which in the early '50s were no abstract concepts, as the world was then barely on the far side of the abyss of fascism.
In the end this proves too tall an order and the density of the texts makes it difficult for an audience to break through. Audiences hate a void and desperately seek to fill it but by the end of a gruelling 70 minutes, most give up the ghost.
There is no doubting Dwan's technical brilliance here, her vocal range is dizzyingly operatic and her diction alone is a wonder to behold as she revels in the mesmeric rhythms of these lines. Clad in a dark slip with bleeding, filthy, legs she attacks the material with a ferocious intensity, whether she is flayed on an upended slit of ground or suspended high in a birdcage-like seat or merely wandering a desolate bog land.
Christopher Oram's design and Hugh Vanstone's lighting give it a refined theatricality but too often there are too many competing voices and actually closing your eyes and letting it wash over you lends it more clarity. The leap from the page to the radio microphone might have been sufficient here and it is noteworthy that in 1974 Beckett got Patrick Magee to record these texts for radio. For Beckett form and content were inseparable. He was, after all, the one who wrote a film called Film.
The technical virtuosity, while it is something to behold, in the end isn't enough to rescue the piece and it has a wilfully self-conscious artfulness to it which goes against the grain of so much of Beckett, whose caustic wit was always so grounded. Unlike with Billie Whitelaw for example you do see all the joins in the performance.
Although the texts could be non gender specific, there is a maleness here too which is hard to extinguish and one wonders if Beckett, at least here, has defeated the current trend for gender neutral casting. Could the great I'll Go On, the excellent one man show Barry McGovern did of Molloy and Malone Dies and The Unnameable ever be female?
Old Vic supremo Matthew Warchus is to be commended though for his daring here in following up Groundhog Day with this, in a 1000 seat theatre. Dwan remains an exciting performer and one wonders if she'd take the easy option next time and give us her Winnie in Happy Days.