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A CurtainUp London London Review
Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby

"no part of her moving . . . that she could feel . . . just the eyelids presumably . . . " — from Not I
Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby
Lisa Dwan's mouth in Not I (Photo: John Haynes)
The first and most celebrated of these three pieces from Samuel Beckett, the most significant and venerated playwright of the twentieth century, is 40 years old. It was first produced in London at The Royal Court in 1973.

A disembodied mouth floats above the stage delivering a stream of verbosity at the speed of light. The experience is played in a blacked out theatre. Even the usually distracting Fire Exit lights appear to have been extinguished. Aurally you have Lisa Dwan's voice, rapid and remarkable as she doesn't seem to have room to breathe, such is the speed with which the monologue is delivered. Visually, the mouth is a long way away, glinting occasionally when the lighting flashes off her teeth. Around you, you are conscious of the soft rumble of the tube trains under Sloane Square or the coughing of the audience.

The rush of words is hard to understand. Beckett said that the words could not be delivered too fast and Lisa Dwan has cut several minutes off Whitelaw's performance. But to what end? I have listened to Whitelaw's tape and understood more of the sense of the piece. I have read the text but should I have had to do this in order to reach an understanding of the sense or am I just a dyed in the wool conformist asking for sense to be made of that which I don't understand? Is Beckett like obscure modern art, where the emotional reaction is more important than the beauty or artistry of the work?

When actors complained that Beckett's choices would bore the audience, the playwright responded, "Bore them!" Did Beckett want the audience to be bored, to translate that boredom as an interpretation of the human condition of the mundane existence of these women in these plays? Not I has become more talked about because Billie Whitelaw who created the piece in London, has written and spoken about her long term working relationship with the playwright. We have Ms Whitelaw on tape. It is different. Her mouth is close up on a screen larger than life size and the speed is there but the words are delivered at a pace we can understand.

The second piece Footfalls has Lisa Dwam in a long tattered frock pacing the stage. We see her turning and repeating her progress, exactly nine steps in each direction, a woman pacing outside the room of her elderly and dying mother. She is pale and grey and the lighting gives her a ghostlike presence. The voice we hear is that of her dying mother. It is about dependency and old age and the lives of women.

The final piece, Rockaby, has a figure in black rocking in a chair. The chair moves mechanically, although in the darkness we cannot see that. A few sequins on the woman's dress glint in the light. Again it is about the confined life of a woman who has aged prematurely and sits in the chair rocking towards her death.

Don't expect these plays to be entertaining. The existentialism of all three running in total at under a hour, has a power, a discomfiture that provokes discussion and analysis. They literally haunt you and taunt you, forcing an engagement in a discussion on the meaning of life.

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Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Walter Asmus

Starring: Lisa Dwan
Designed by Alex Eales
Composer : Tom Smail
Sound: David McSeveney
Lighting: James Farncombe
Running time: 55 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking at the Royal Court to 18th January 2014 and then 3rd to 15th February at the Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2

September 2014 touring to the Arts Theatre Cambridge, Birmingham Rep and The Lowry, Salford
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 13th January 2014 performance at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)

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