Irish actress Lisa Dwan sold out the Royal Court with her trilogy of Beckett plays, the most acclaimed being her interpretation of Not I. JOANNE SAVAGE asks her about the challenges of delivering such frantic, haunting lines that speak to the darkness of the human condition
The experimental, darkly comic, often absurdist Irish playwright Samuel Beckett wrote a piece called Not I that was to be performed simply by the character Mouth.
This Mouth would be lit up amidst surrounding darkness, the audience’s focus on the furiously delivered monologue that speaks obscurely of many things - loneliness, madness, female experience, defiance and a deep sense of dislocation and alienation.
The part was originally performed by Billie Whitelaw, who was trained by the Nobel Prize-winning Beckett himself on how to deliver his specific, haunting vision.
In 2005 Irish actress Lisa Dwan took on the difficult role, so challenging for an actor in its circling language, repetitions and darkness of sentiment that Whitelaw once described it as “falling backwards into hell”.
Dwan, who grew up in rural Athlone and left school at 14 to pursue a ballet scholarship which ended with a knee injury, describes the challenge of delivering the part as “driving the wrong way down a motorway while blind-folded”.
Why endure such torture?, I ask Lisa, who is petite and so beautiful it seems a crime that the part involves being blindfolded and strapped behind a blackboard with a hole in it, covering her entire face in thick black make-up and her blonde hair stuffed inside thick black tights, so that only her moving mouth is the focus of light and the audience’s rapt gaze.
“I’ve never found a part that was so expansive and so vast,” she explains. “I don’t even feel like a human being let alone a woman when I am delivering these lines.
“And when I’m doing Not I my own thoughts are descending on me like vultures, I’m delivering this stream of consciousness so quickly that it is hard to turn off my own.
“Beckett writes so expansively for women that it is a real privilege to play a part like this.
“But I have to say I can’t even describe the intense feeling of nervousness before performing the piece. I have to employ such strict measures and I usually spend an hour meditating beforehand.”
Not I has been rapturously critically received, but for some the experience has proved too much: at a performance in Galway an audience member had a panic attack, and adds Lisa, some of her friends have had to leave the performance because they found it so visceral, so hauntingly fast and so intense.
The actress, who has also received rave reviews for her trilogy, sold out the prestigious Royal Court, delivering Not I followed by two other dark pieces: Footfalls and Rockaby, which she brings to Belfast’s MAC in the first week of September.
Footfalls sees Dwan pacing as a ghostly character outside her mother’s sick room, pale and mournful in a black gown. The voice of the mother laments how much longer her daughter’s existence must continue. In Rockaby the character seems to rock herself to death in a rocking chair, staring into space as into a deep abyss.
“Footfalls speaks about trauma, about not being seen, about oppression and feeling not quite born,” explains the actress.
“If there is any kind of thread that joins these three pieces together it is defiance in the face of the sheer damn awfulness of the human condition.”
The immense popularity of Dwan’s Beckett may seem unusual since the Irish playwright could pretty well be described as the literary godather of existential gloom; he stares at life in its full often horrible truth, unblinking, unflinching.
But perhaps there is a truth to Dwan’s delivery of this theatrical dark night of the soul that has resonated with audiences. Despair is as an essential part of being human and nobody gives voice to this better than Beckett channelled through the vocal chords of Lisa Dwan.
The MAC, Belfast, September 2-6.