In a city where even the night sky is a dull, starless grey, immersion in absolute darkness is a rarity. The resulting blindness, although temporary, causes a sense of sudden isolation. Packed into the tiny Royal Court Theatre, hundreds of people titter nervously, unsure of how to behave as they wait for the first play to begin. Eavesdropping is easy in the pervading blackness, and I listen to the people behind me as they exchange feelings of uneasiness and claustrophobia. However, these sensations are nothing compared to the experience of Lisa Dwan, who has spent the last nine years performing Samuel Beckett’s most aggressive play, Not I.
Teeth flare like a struck match eight feet above the stage, and my eyes water as I try to focus not just on this hallucinogenic vision, but also on the machine-gun rapidity of the words vehemently spat from the mouth’s vivid, pink lips. The performance drives the air from your lungs, almost as if compensating for the breaths that this mouth is unable to draw. A role that requires such obsessive dedication deserves fanatic attention, and I feel the bodies in the darkness around me seize up in pained attentiveness. Lisa tells me that performing this piece makes her feel liberatingly inhuman, and when plunged into darkness again, I try to – paradoxically – embody this disembodiment, as if I could forget my form merely by being unable to see it.
Sudden silence jars me out of concentration, as a pale figure is illuminated in muted light on stage, its metronomic footsteps filling the air. The woman calls out, ‘mother?’, and a voice responds with the weight of age and illness. I realise later that this is a recording of Lisa’s voice – one she tells me she based on Beckett’s mother, May, an ‘austere, protestant, cold, brittle voice’ that haunted her throughout production. Footfalls is the longest of these three ‘dramaticules’, its length carrying a weight of existence as painful as the accelerated lifespan of Not I. There is a bitterness that betrays a life lived in the past, and of a woman haunting her own being.
Beckett’s work is often misread as hopeless, something that Lisa and I discuss at length, but the third play, Rockaby, expresses courage in the face of suffering, and, more significantly: death. While the nameless woman yearns for a witness to confirm her existence, just ‘one other living soul’, rocking back and forth at the chair’s own volition, her fading voice cries out ‘More!’ each time it stops, refusing to admit defeat. The play’s narration offers a slow disintegration of consciousness that is prevalent in Beckett’s later work. However, control remains with the woman, as the decision to ‘fuck life’ is hers in the end, dressed in funeral finery and held in the rocking chair’s embrace. With that, we are all returned to the darkness from which we began, from the womb into the tomb.
I spoke with Lisa at Little House in Mayfair, two days after the last performance at the Royal Court Theatre. Her diminutive stature does nothing to obscure the power and intensity both of her personality, and passion regarding acting, especially her lifelong engagement with Beckett. We exchange mutual condolences on the effect that he has on us from beyond the grave, and discuss how to stay sane while inhabiting his work.