Friday, 10 July 2009

Not I by Samuel Beckett

I feel very privileged to have seen a stage performance of this play, since they don’t come along all that often. Lisa Dwan undertakes the incredibly demanding role of Mouth and delivers an astonishing and compelling performance. The ten minutes or so of the play flash by in the darkened theatre, one spotlight on Mouth and nothing other than the actress’s teeth and lips visible. I’ve seen the film of Not I, with Billie Whitelaw and directed by Beckett, a few times (you can see it here); I was surprised, although it is only to be expected, how very small Mouth is on stage, and so far away, requiring a greater effort to focus. This effort produces strange optical illusions: I thought I could see Mouth move across to the left, about a foot from her starting point, and wondered briefly how on earth this had been achieved and lit, before dismissing it. A question from the audience later revealed that this is a common experience for those watching this play. The other differences between the film and the play are the bright colour of Mouth, and the less visceral, more graphic quality of the image. This, I found, emphasised the visceral quality of the text and the sound.

After the performance, filmed interviews with Billie Whitelaw and Fiona Shaw, who has also performed the role, were shown. There was then an entertaining discussion between Lisa Dwan, Edward Petherbridge (famous for performing Krapp’s Last Tape) and Jude Kelly (director of Beckett and who had performed Not I as a student). Lisa Dwan described the torturous arrangements she submits to for each performance. Her face, including the insides of her nostrils, and her neck and shoulders are painted black. She is blindfolded and a pair of black tights stretched over her head and shoulders. Then she is led up some steps to a wooden frame, puts her head and arms through holes in the frame (it sounds like a monochrome version of one of these) and her head is strapped in place, to ensure she cannot move her mouth out of the spotlight. These arrangements (similar ones have been used by all the actresses who have played Mouth) and the feat of memory required to learn it go some way to explaining why it is so rarely performed. Billie Whitelaw spoke of it as the hardest role an actress can undertake.

This production, for pragmatic reasons, dispensed with the Auditor. Having written about this role during my MA I was slightly disappointed not to see him, but this did not detract from the power and intensity of the play at all. Jude Kelly mentioned during the discussion that all Beckett’s characters show an awareness that they are being watched, which I think points towards the importance of the Auditor as a manifestation of that awareness. However, I hope Lisa Dwan repeats her performance, with or without the Auditor, so that more audiences can have the opportunity of this extraordinary theatrical experience.

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