Lisa Dwan: ‘You can’t see. You can’t hear. Your head is in a harness. You can’t move your arms’
Performing Beckett’s ‘Not I’ involves being blindfolded, bound, and hovering on a platform in a pitch-black space. So why can’t Lisa Dwan leave it alone?
Actor Lisa Dwan: ‘ I can’t imagine ever again playing a role that will summon so much of me.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
Actor Lisa Dwan in Trinity College, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke
Lisa Dwan carries a blindfold around in her handbag. This is not because the diminutive 35-year-old from Athlone might, unexpectedly, need to sleep on a plane or take part in a bank robbery. Rather, it’s essential equipment for her role as Mouth in Samuel Beckett’s Not I.
Listening to Dwan talk about her preparations for the play, which she will bring to this year’s Hay Festival in Kells, Co Meath, you can’t help thinking that a bank robbery would be a cinch by comparison. “I tie my head into the banisters and record myself, three times a day,” she says. “I have to do it three times a day, no matter where I am. So if I’m in a friend’s house and they have a banisters I’m like, ‘Do you mind if I . . . ?’ ”
It sounds like the place where method acting meets OCD – but this constant repetition, she insists, is absolutely vital.
“I need to practise without moving my head,” she says. “Because it’s one thing learning the piece. Then it’s another thing learning to say it at speed. Then it’s another thing doing it when you can’t move anything apart from your mouth; because your attention is being dragged away by the pain in your neck, by the speed, by not being able to swallow or move, by the phobic feelings that are generated by that kind of sensory deprivation.”
A short dramatic monologue written in 1972, Not I takes place in a pitch-black space illuminated by a single beam of light. All that can be seen of the female narrator is her mouth, which emits a stream of fragmented sentences at breakneck speed. When the script was sent to Dwan in 2000, she admits that she found it intimidating. “I know very few people who aren’t intimidated by Beckett. But I put that out of my mind very quickly.”
Besides, she says, she was immediately transfixed by the text. “The first few words are so gripping – they pull you in immediately. I felt instinctively that it had to be spoken at speed. But what I saw and heard, in between that fragmented narrative, was Ireland. It was home. The acerbic, parochial asides. The Christian pieties. ‘No sooner buttoned up his britches.’ ‘Tender mercies.’ In between those was the sound of Ireland. One of the things I notice in this work is the conflict with home: love and loathing, a yearning and a contempt. And having lived in London for 12 years, I identify a lot with that.”
Not I was first produced at Lincoln Center in New York in 1972 with Jessica Tandy in the title role. “You ruined my play,” Beckett told her after the show. The following year the playwright coached his preferred choice for the role, his long-term collaborator Billie Whitelaw, for a production at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
“You’ve written the unlearnable,” Whitelaw told Beckett, “and you’ve written the unplayable.” Whitelaw had several breakdowns during the rehearsal process – which, when you hear Dwan describe an ordinary day in the Not I world, is not too surprising.
“I have a hernia at the moment from performing the piece,” she says. “I’ve pulled muscles all over the place. My chiropractor goes ashen when I tell her I’m doing it again.”
Learning the unlearnable
How do you learn the unlearnable? “I use three different forms of memory, I think,” Dwan says. “I visualise the pages, so it’s almost like I’m describing a picture as I go along. My battered copy I can no longer take on the road with me, but I’ve photocopied it so it has all the same notes.”
She digs in her bag and waves a couple of sheets that look as if they’ve been attacked by small nibbling animals. “So there’s the oral memory of it being like a song. And then there’s the narrative – which isn’t that obscure. Those three components have to be employed 100 per cent simultaneously, so that I can let go and let the piece play on my nervous system.
“I mean, I can still go wrong. The piece will always elude me, and I accept that. Well, what I accept is the terror that is summoned by that knife-edge. But it means I can never take it for granted.”
After avoiding all mention of Billie Whitelaw in order to develop her own take on the play – not easy, with the eyes of the entire Beckett world on you and the possibility that the playwright’s nephew Edward might put a stop to your production, if he felt it strayed too far from the spirit of his uncle – Dwan was brought together with the veteran actor by the BBC in 2006 as part of the celebrations to mark the centenary of Beckett’s birth.
“A year after we met, she rang me and said ‘I want to give you Beckett’s notes – can you come round, please?’ I was expecting her to hand me handwritten notes or a rehearsal script. But she said, ‘Sit down.’ So I sat opposite her at her kitchen table. She said, ‘Now, begin.’ And she started conducting me.”
The contact with Whitelaw was important for Dwan, not just in that she was a direct conduit back to Beckett but also because while Jessica Tandy had performed the piece in 22 minutes, Whitelaw did it in 14. “She’s the Roger Bannister of the Not I world. She broke a psychological barrier for the rest of us who come in her wake – that it could be done at that speed, and done brilliantly. And that it was theatre. Because that was the big debate that Beckett had; let’s find out if this is theatre or not.” When Dwan first performed Not I, she was clocking up a speed of 12 minutes. On her last outing at the Royal Court in London, she was doing it in nine. “Let’s say under 10 – for the hernia’s sake,” she says.
For the audience as much as for the performer, Not I is an enduringly strange experience. Beckett’s stage instructions demand that the theatre be blacked out completely – which is not easy to achieve – and the light that shines on the actor’s mouth has to be angled very precisely.
“If you get it right,” says Dwan, “the whole audience enjoys a group hallucination where the mouth appears to float about the theatre. Some people claim that the mouth is here; some people feel it travels over there; some people feel it’s all the way round.”
Dwan performed Not I at the Beckett Festival in Enniskillen last year, and will do so again this summer. But her performance in Kells represents her first time on a stage in the Republic in 12 years. She is about to start work on some of Beckett’s other short plays and has been granted the rights to film Not I by the Beckett archive. Sky Arts has also made a documentary that will be broadcast next month.
Dangers of orange juice
Meanwhile, Not I has taken over Dwan’s life. On the day of a show, she goes for a run in the morning to open up her lungs. She stretches as much as possible. She gargles. She is careful about her diet. “An orange juice could be fatal because of the saliva it produces – try and deal with reflux up there,” she says. An hour beforehand she goes through the script with one of her own recordings. Then she meditates.
As she is led up to the platform, blindfolded, and strapped into what looks more like a torture chamber than a stage set, what goes through her mind? “Terror,” she says. “You can’t see. You can’t hear. Your head is in a harness. You can’t move your arms. You’re hovering on a platform in a completely blackened space, eight foot above the ground. Your face is going numb; your circulation is being cut off.”
And yet, as a Beckett character might say . . . and yet. “When you’re performing it, you feel like you’re flying. You feel like you’re in this black void, flying.”
Is that what keeps her doing Not I – and will there come a day when she says, Not I, no more? “We joke about that,” she says. “My mother always says ‘not again’. But I can’t imagine ever again playing a role that will summon so much of me. Despite the difficulties, it’s an absolute privilege to perform this piece. I feel extremely grateful that Beckett has articulated life’s conflicts with such poetry and purpose.
“His final note is, ‘Hold tight to your despair and let it sing for us.’ That’s what Not I does. So yes, at some point it really will be me saying ‘Not I’. But while I can, I must.”
Lisa Dwan performs Beckett’s Not I at Hay Festival, Kells, on Friday at 5.30pm