No’s Knife review: Lisa Dwan goes on with Beckett redux

The actor gives Beckett’s words a more aggressive, tortured reading

Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife, now at the Abbey Theatre

Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife, now at the Abbey Theatre

 

***

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

“[You] must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” run the famous last words of The Unnamable, a disintegrating consciousness as it reaches an ending, if not a conclusion. What does it say, then, that the fracturing voice of Samuel Beckett’s next undertaking, Texts For Nothing, “the grisly afterbirth” of his prose trilogy, resumes the struggle with less determination? “Suddenly, no, at last, long last, I couldn’t any more, I couldn’t go on,” it begins, with a similar tumult of contradictions. It goes on.

Adapted for the stage by Lisa Dwan, who performs four of Beckett’s 13 fragments in striking, successive scenes, No’s Knife has its work cut out. Simply by physicalising these texts – less a stream of consciousness than any number of tributaries, rushing and diverging – it gives some purchase to writing that actively resists it. Inspired by Beckett’s unique command of arresting spectacle, Dwan, as co-director with Joe Murphy, also plumbs for staging ideas that are as disorienting and compelling as those of his dramas.

A charred and matted figure, embedded high in a sheer precipice, Dwan’s speaker seems as stuck as the confined characters of Happy Days, Endgame, Play – take your pick. But, like the words, even Christopher Oram’s set keeps disturbing any fixed ideas. When sound designer Mic Pool whips Dwan’s amplified voice around the auditorium, you get the sense that we may be hovering above her, afforded a bird’s eye view of this indeterminate presence on an abstract landscape. She is as ambivalent about her faltering story as she is about her material being. “Let them cease,” she says of her head and body, as though she is something else, letting the sibilance of “cease” rustle harshly through the theatre.

This makes it a much more aggressive, tortured reading than the page suggests. Dwan gives a querulous pivot to the text’s many contradictions (“I can do nothing anymore, that’s what you think”), making them sound like the competing voices of innumerable characters. Later padding through a primordial landscape, in the arresting, twitchy choreography of Lucy Hind, she casts her mind into an imagined future, letting her voice slalom between girlishness (splashing playfully in a puddle) and braying gruffness. Dwan is precise with every swivel, as though her voice is following a complicated score, but the range of accents and personas is mystifying. As the tramps said of Pozzo, she’s all humanity, and the agenda seems never to parse the voice, but to pluralise it.

Finally, though, the production settles to accommodate a more intact, distinct voice: “Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be . . . who says this, saying it’s me?” That rumination could stand as easily for the existential quandary of mankind as for an actor imagining what lies beneath a performance. The spectacle shrinks to hold her in a single spotlight, moving deep into the auditorium, a focal point for a kind of vanishing act, as she decides “a story is not compulsory, just a life . . . life alone is enough”.

Runs until June 17

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