Culture Shock: Beckett’s Irish women finally have a distinctly Irish voice

Lisa Dwan gives astonishing performances of ‘Not I’, ‘Footfalls’ and ‘Rockaby’

Samuel Beckett wrote significant works for Irish male voices: Krapp's Last Tape specifically for Patrick Magee; Eh Joe for Jack McGowran. But Beckett never wrote directly for an Irish actress.

His great female muse was the marvellous English actor Billie Whitelaw. Thus, in Not I, the almost unbearably intense monologue in which the audience sees only a mouth, the protagonist's world is recognisably Dublin. She "must have cried as a babby" – the pronunciation deliberately weighted towards Dublin vernacular in a work where every syllable is chosen with utter precision – and she recalls Croker's Acres near Beckett's own boyhood home. But the voice in which this is classically articulated is Whitelaw's beautiful, clear- cut English. Or at least it was until Lisa Dwan came along.

Dwan's astonishing versions of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby are not important merely because they are Irish. But they do very consciously use an Irish voice to achieve remarkable things with these strange and haunting texts.

Dwan, as she details in a radio essay for BBC3 to be broadcast next week (an edited version will appear in The Irish Times on Monday) was helped by Whitelaw herself in preparing for the almost impossible demands of Not I. Knowing this, and knowing that the trilogy that had sold-out runs at the Royal Court in London, the Galway Arts Festival and elsewhere (I saw it at the Mac in Belfast) is directed by Beckett's own former collaborator, Walter Asmus, it is natural to think of Dwan as an official chosen successor. One can imagine an apostolic laying on of hands – the "right" way of doing Beckett being passed on to a new generation.


This is not an entirely welcome thought but it is, in any case, an unnecessary one. For alongside her great technical mastery, Dwan displays a fiercely original approach to the works. She honours Beckett’s wishes with supreme rigour but also with an understanding that, within the tight structures of these plays, there is still ample room for fresh interpretations.

You will seldom see in any art form such a perfect balance between profound respect for a tradition on the one side and urgent invention on the other.

A lot of this urgency is physical. These plays are all about extraordinary constraint. In Not I, the actor is blacked out except for her mouth. In Footfalls, she paces up and down along a narrow, dimly lit strip. In Rockaby, she is confined to a rocking chair. Dwan embraces these constraints but she also defies them.

She injects an extraordinary physical power into each of the roles, making the mouth of Not I hover and sway above the audience. In Footfalls, the pacing of May outside her mother's door follows Beckett's instructions exactly, but Dwan makes it more than merely robotic. She brings to the rocking in Rockaby a carefully exaggerated motion that makes it a desperate attempt to stay alive by staying on the move. All of this is accomplished in a mesmerising two-step with James Francombe's magical lighting, a choreography in which Dwan moves in and out of visibility, now a clear presence, now a mere spectre. Dwan's background as a dancer is superbly manifest.

But the really amazing things Dwan does are with her voice – a voice that is, in Not I and Rockaby, heavily Irish. This turns out to matter a lot, especially in Not I. It is not at all a criticism of Whitelaw's great version of the text (worth watching on YouTube) to say that it strives to operate largely within one register. Its great achievement, indeed, is to bring a phenomenal vocal coherence to a deliberately fragmentary text.

Dwan’s Irish voice works quite differently: it has that range of vocal register that you find in ordinary Dublin speech, swooping up and down the scale from flat ordinariness to operatic exaggeration, from the conversational to the hysterical. This makes the piece both more “real” in the way it is connected to the fragments of a recognisable character, and a much wilder, faster, more dizzying roller-coaster ride.

With Footfalls, Dwan's use of her voice is even more original and more daring. The play happens between May and the voice of her unseen mother, performed by another actor. Except here there is no other actor. Dwan takes on both voices herself and moves subtly and with breathtaking control between taped and live speech. This is not mere caprice: it opens up a way of understanding the play in which May and her mother are not separate presences but have become one and the same.

With Rockaby, Dwan goes for an almost equally radical strategy of pitching her voiceover on the fringes of audibility and in a flat, cold monotone, making it, to chilling effect, the voice of death.

These are leaps of interpretation as wide and bold as any radical departure from Beckett’s own wishes might be, except that they leap into rather than out of his stringent aesthetic. With prodigious technique allied to ferocious intelligence, Dwan has made these plays utterly her own without taking them away from their creator. In doing so, she gives them to us as things that are unfathomably strange and yet viscerally immediate. She conjures them from the darkness in all their ghostly terror – but also, in her mastery, exorcises those ghosts.