Review: Not I/ Footfalls/ Rockaby

Lisa Dwan in Rockaby, photo: John Haynes

Lisa Dwan returns to the Royal Court reprising her performance last year of Not I, alongside Footfalls and Rockaby. This one-woman ‘Beckett Trilogy’ has been directed by Beckett’s long-time collaborator and friend, Walter Asmus. All three of the plays showcased Billie Whitelaw at their premieres, who has tutored Swan in the part of the mouth.

Beckett perhaps is best known for Endgame (the one with the dustbins) and Waiting for Godot (the one with all the waiting). But the rapidity with which this trilogy sold out both its run at the Royal Court and its West End transfer, in addition to the announcement of its forthcoming tour this autumn, are both testaments to the appeal of Beckett’s later works. The run at the Duchess Theatre has given back some integrity to the so often money-spinning West End stage. These plays are challenging, and a challenge to watch, with their annihilating suspension and subversion of meaning.

Not I might be reduced to ‘the one with the mouth’ but this piece of theatre is a uniquely dynamic and overwhelming experience. A performance steward gets up before it all begins to inform us the theatre will be completely blacked out, even the security lights, for the duration of Not I. I have never experienced such compelling darkness. Then Lisa Dwan’s spotlit, disembodied lips, with post-box red lipstick, begin their skittish, stream of consciousness expression. The effort required to try and catch the words as they run along at the ‘speed of thought’ is startling and the barely pausing trills of Dwan’s slightly Irish lilt continue in seemingly timeless, painful and defiant utterance. The resounding ‘what?… who?… no?…. she?….’ rings out accompanied by a slight pause and movement. The mouth hovers in looming smallness; you know there’s a minutiae of detail in those lips but like the voice it exudes, only the big picture can ever be apparent.

Footfalls and Rockaby work together with a comparable, rhythmic ghostliness. Footfalls depicts a young but aged-looking woman, dressed in a white lacey cotton nightgown who appears to haunt herself by obsessively taking nine steps back and forth across the stage, desperate to hear her own ‘footfalls’ and trying to affirm her own existence, grasping at memories. She speaks to the elusive voice of ‘Mother’. It is peculiarly eerie. Rockaby figures a woman, dressed up in beaded black evening finery, rocking alone in her rocking chair. Her anguish is palpable. The rocking and voice produce a lullaby effect, but a lull that is chilling, evoking nightmares not dreams.

This trilogy melds together like three movements of a symphony, with its soloist Dwan achieving a near-perfect, virtuosic performance.

The autumn national tour visits Cambridge Arts Theatre (9-13 September), Birmingham REP (16-20 September) and The Lowry, Salford (23-27 September).

This review was originally written for The Student Journals.