Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Theatre review: Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby

Welcome to this year's installment of "Nick never learns his lesson about Beckett." I have, in fact, had a Beckett rule in place for some time, that rule being "no Beckett, ever," but I still seem to keep finding excuses to break it, whether it be Juliet Stevenson or the prospect of unusually attractive tramps. Lisa Dwan's performance of Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby, three short plays dealing in some way or other with women reflecting on their lives, has been knocking around for a couple of years, starting at the Royal Court then spending some time in the West End before touring extensively. I'd avoided it, but what finally changed my mind was a story about the production causing audience members to have panic attacks: Like the prospect of getting splashed with stage blood, this is the sort of thing I find a perverse kind of selling point.

The reason for the panic is the fact that the shows - and the three-minute interludes between them - take place in complete darkness. Apparently some people have been finding it a darker darkness than expected, hence panic at finding themselves trapped. Trapped with Beckett, at that.

Not I is a monologue to be spoken at speed by a disembodied mouth in the darkness, the words sometimes intercut with cackles, singing or screams. Dwan's is apparently the fastest-ever delivery of the piece, which means Not I encapsulates how I feel about the playwright: I love his ideas, and on the page the complexity of his writing can yield depths. But on stage, especially when delivered too quickly to follow, it becomes an impenetrable flurry of repetition that becomes dull as soon as the novelty of Dwan's voice sounding uncannily like Mrs Doyle wears off.

Will you have a cup of tea, Father? Ah Dwan. Dwan Dwan Dwan.

Next is Footfalls, in which Dwan is a woman in her forties, pacing back and forth in the night as her elderly mother lies ill in bed; her initial conversations with the unseen mother are quite promising but it too descends into something I couldn't care about. Rockaby is unusual in that I'd actually seen it before and even enjoyed it, but then it was performed by Kathryn Hunter so all bets are off. Here the speech is actually pre-recorded as Dwan sits in her rocking chair listening to it, occasionally demanding more.

Dwan Dwan, Dwan, Dwan, Dwan, Dwan, DWAN!

So no, once again I didn't find a good reason to have broken my Beckett rule, although as it turns out that total darkness is the best thing about Walter Asmus' production, as it allows lighting designer James Farncombe to play with the tiniest differences of light and shadow. In Rockaby Dwan's face rocks in and out of the sliver of light, while the most memorable moments are when the light dips and then comes up again during Footfalls - even though we've already seen her white-painted face, it's still creepy seeing it emerge from the darkness like the ghost of Gillian Anderson.

Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby by Samuel Beckett is booking until the 7th of June at the Pit (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

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