Lisa Dwan’s acclaimed Beckett trilogy pushes performance to the limits,

HAVING wowed London’s West End, actress Lisa Dwan brings her acclaimed Samuel Beckett trilogy to Galway’s Taibhdhearc theatre next week, as part of the Galway Arts Festival. It will be a spiritual homecoming.

“I can’t tell you what performing in Galway means to me,” says the Westmeath native, who lives in London. “The Taibhdhearc was the first place I worked professionally in theatre, and all my dreams were realised in Galway. So it’s so important to be going back there.”

For that first Taibhdhearc gig, in the late 1990s, Dwan was a choreographer (she had started out as a dancer). Dwan has since acted onstage, in film and on TV. However, she has become synonymous with Beckett.

Dwan first performed Beckett’s intense and challenging Not I in 2005, and it altered her career. A short-monologue play in which a disembodied mouth babbles compulsively at ‘the speed of thought’, Dwan’s performance was greeted as the finest since Billie Whitelaw’s in 1973. It led Whitelaw, who had been coached by Beckett, to collaborate with Dwan on further productions.

Its phenomenal success prompted Dwan and director Walter Asmus — Beckett’s friend and assistant — to integrate Not I into a conceptual ‘trilogy’ with Footfalls and Rockaby. The latter premiered at the Royal Court earlier this year, gaining enormous plaudits and transferring to the West End’s Duchess Theatre. The one-woman show is now at the outset of an extensive international tour.

“We were constantly told that Beckett doesn’t sell, which is hilarious. We were told that these three pieces of modernism wouldn’t be commercial and yet they’ve sold out everywhere.”

Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby are all pieces from the later period of Beckett’s writing for theatre. Though they are quite varied, the protagonist in each of them is not so much a human being as the human mind itself, exposed to itself like a raw nerve, jarred and jangling with images and memories that it cannot resist summoning, yet by which it is bemused and tormented. In Footfalls, a young woman treads the same pattern on the landing outside the bedroom in which her mother may lay dying. In Rockaby an ageing woman rests in a rocking chair while stewing morbidly in her thoughts, the chair seemingly moving of its own volition. As with Not I, these are minute dramas that hinge upon the eeriness, delirium, and terror of cognition and consciousness.

Dwan confesses there have been times when after performing Not I she has phoned Whitelaw up in floods after tears, having been brought to extreme limits.

Whitelaw herself had described performing in Not I as being akin to “falling backwards into hell, emitting cries”. But it is to such limits that Beckett himself wished to plunge both the audience and performer alike. Beckett had instructed that Not I be performed at the speed of thought.

“He wanted to bypass the intellect and play on the nerves,” says Dwan. Whitelaw had delivered the play’s dense and intense spiel in 14 minutes. Dwan does it in less than 10. And she does so with her face plunged through a small hole in a board raised above the audience’s eye-line, a board upon which her body is restrained. Of course, this confinement is much in keeping with the extraordinary physical ‘stuckness’ of Beckett characters in so much of his theatre, from Play to Happy Days. Yet in the midst of such confinement, Dwan says Not I transports her somewhere “expansive and liberating”.

“I’m going to tell you something weird and hopefully you can present it without it making me sounding lofty or nutty. I’m tied into the harness during Not I. My mask is on, so I can’t see. My head’s lodged into the headboard. I can’t hear because my ears are closed off. My arms are locked into brackets and my body’s pressed against the board. So I can’t move. The only thing that’s moving is my mouth. Yet every single cell in me is completely utilised. But what happens in that thick, utter blackness is that I start to feel like I’m floating around the theatre. I have a sort-of out-of-body experience. And I’m pretty sure that’s not just because I’m hyperventilating.”

“But what I find bizarre is that the audience start to think that I’m floating around the theatre, too. The audience have a collective optical illusion where they see my mouth travelling. And yet it’s individual for every member of the audience because of how their brain is responding to the light and to the sensory deprivation. Some people feel I’m floating to the right, others to the left. Some feel that I’m floating right up to them, that the mouth is getting bigger or smaller. And it’s not. Logically, we know it’s not. And, logically, I know I’m not moving. But I feel that I am. I feel like I’m taking flight across the auditorium.”

In addition to the demands Beckett makes of performers, it’s also notable that at the centre of each of the pieces is a female character who is tormented and yet resilient, fiercely clever yet drastically enclosed. It’s not something that’s mentioned much but Beckett’s women are some of the most complex female creatures in modern theatre.

“I could be wrong but I feel that most of his real self — his autobiographical pain and angst — is hidden in his female characters,” says Dwan. Yet she points out too that, ultimately, Beckett depicts all humans the same way, as creatures that venture upon a strange outer region of experience. “These characters are so expansive that there’s not a cell of mine that isn’t required to perform them,” she says. “And it is a privilege to perform them. Beckett’s characters, regardless of whether they’re men or women, are a portal into something unfathomably vast.”

Not I, Rockaby and Footfalls run at the Taibhdhearc, Galway from July 22-26

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