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Interview with Lisa Dwan

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.


QThe White Review — What initially brought you to Beckett?

ALisa Dwan — I remember being blown away by Cascando. I was very fortunate to be working in Dublin when I was 18 with the likes of Stephen Brennan and Robin Lefevre, and people working on the Beckett on Film at the Gate Theatre. That was my landscape, and that was my bar when I first came to Beckett. It was during a time when the work was being canonised, and also severely revered. I was just starting out professionally and I remember Stephen Brennan – he was playing my dad in Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog at the time – told me about this play where there’s a disembodied mouth floating on stage, and the effect of the deprivation of light meant that the mouth appears to roam and oscillate. I was transfixed by this image. He also told me he knew someone who tried to learn the role and went mad.

Selective memory meant that I did not recall that information when it came to learning Not I. When I was sent the script years later, I saw a transcript of how my mind works, how thought isn’t a strict stream of consciousness, is not linear, how it filters sounds outside of you, and thoughts, memories, interruptions, doubt, and fear. I knew instinctively that the script needed to be spoken at speed. I auditioned and got the part. I was extremely lucky to come from the landscape Beckett refers to, that I could hear the musicality of the poetry, and that I wasn’t overly burdened by that intellectual reverence and intimidated by the impenetrable nature of Beckett’s immediacy, which people forget. If you just shut off your intellect for a minute and allow it to wash over you, you get more than just trying to grasp it.

QThe White Review — Sometimes you limit yourself by putting up a wall between the texts.

ALisa Dwan — You’re cutting off other aspects of the piece that are more persuasive. You nearly need to approach it as a piece of music, or as a dance piece. Certainly I approach it as a dancer, allowing all the elements – the visuals, the rhythmics, the sensory stimulus – to wash over me. You need to approach it in a holistic way.

QThe White Review — During the performance, I was struck by the contrast between Not I and Footfalls. How difficult is it to go from the speed and ferocity of the former to the restraint and deliberateness of the latter?

ALisa Dwan — The director Walter Asmus and I decided that my relationship to every movement would be personal, that I would use my physical and emotional vocabulary to create the sound that Beckett’s text, his score, requires. That starts the minute the chime goes off. Being a dancer, it is easier to access that, and I am very grateful for the first four laps of the pacing because those footsteps are key. They are very personal – I use them as a point of focus.

However, the transition from Not I where I rip off the head harness, run as fast as I can round to the dressing box, and start ripping off the black make-up while somebody is sticking a wig on me, trying to squeeze me into a dress – that’s pretty frenetic, and doing that in the half-light… That’s what I love about James Farncombe’s lighting, I feel kind of suspended in light and am able to have a very private, personal, intimate experience.

QThe White Review — Something I discovered is that I have this almost emotionally sadomasochistic relationship with Beckett’s work, and that in order to access it at the level that I need to, it has to hurt me. Do you feel the same way?

ALisa Dwan — Yes, and Walter Asmus pushes me that way all the time. He always says with Not I when I do it in rehearsal that ‘it always has to cost you. It needs to cost you more, we need to see you bleed up there.’ Directors can say that till the cows come home, but they’re not the ones up there doing it. They’re not the ones taking this broken little body and mind on the tube home, tucking themselves in at night, and doing it again the following day. I often said to him, ‘I’m going to be no good to you if I go mad, I have a job to do.’ So, I deliver as much as I can, but I definitely have self-protection mechanisms that mean I hold a bit back, to be professional. That’s not to say it doesn’t cost me. It does, but I try and approach it in a very professional, mature, and rational a way as possible.

I met David Hare recently, and he said he wasn’t convinced that Beckett believed his own worldview, that if he had he wouldn’t have gotten out of bed in the morning. The truth is, he didn’t often get out of bed: he was a depressive, he was considered ‘maladjusted’. He suffered a great deal, and people have said to me, ‘You know, Beckett’s a very cruel writer – it might be ok for him to describe the world in that way, but the rest of us need our delusions.’ There’s a certain amount of truth to that. But once you’ve looked down the barrel of life that way, it’s very hard to forget what you’ve seen and that’s why I always return to his work, why I am probably so filled with a sense of privilege doing this type of work, and why I take it so seriously. You really get to a closer sense of what truth sounds like, and you’re permanently altered. Also, no other writer I have ever come across has ever asked so much of me, has ever wanted so much of me. It’s a privilege to be asked so much.

QThe White Review — If we could talk about Beckett’s plays in a more general sense – for example the production of Waiting for Godot on the West End and now Broadway – I wonder whether using actors like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is attracting people who would otherwise feel a distance between themselves and Beckett?

ALisa Dwan — Maybe. I still think we have a while to go yet. I mean, I am completely overwhelmed with the response we’ve had to Not I. I wasn’t expecting that. I knew that what I was doing was three of Beckett’s late plays, highly niche examples of modernism, very fragile pieces, very easy to get wrong, never before put together in a trilogy, and which had certainly never been performed in one night by one actress. As we’ve discovered, the intellectual reputation, momentum, and reverence surrounding Beckett can sometimes get in the way of people having a very visceral, emotional and raw response. I am amazed that the majority of the reviews were glowing, and that they ‘got’ the work. That’s not to say that you don’t hear the odd voice of people having this very ‘fixed’ idea of what it should be, and the most ridiculous expectations of what it should be, too.

The performances are transcending (these critics’) whole view of what theatre is. Why shouldn’t theatre be in the black? Why shouldn’t it be uncompromising? Why should a piece of poetry not play on the nerves of the audience instead of their intellect, as Beckett demanded? He wanted it spoken at the speed of thought. Why can’t you surrender that little bit, and allow it to play itself out on your nervous system? People with conventional positions struggle with Beckett, and people who are willing to be surprised, open, and look at it as a slice of life, not as just one particular medium with their very blinkered view of what theatre is, have a visceral, physical, and visual experience.

QThe White Review — More than ever his work is relevant now, in a world where boundaries between the arts are being blurred constantly.

ALisa Dwan — Indeed. Some people find the jokey, almost Joycean side of Beckett easier to understand. When we get into the bleaker, pared away, pure, distilled Beckett, people are frightened.

QThe White Review — It’s a fear of being affected by it in the way that it should affect you, for being shown truth.

ALisa Dwan — Truth can be very hard to see.

QThe White Review — The people sitting behind me were commenting how uncomfortable they felt in the dark. Does darkness help you inhabit these roles?

ALisa Dwan — Absolutely. Just being suspended in that light for Footfalls, and the same way in Not I with the deprivation, makes me go places. I don’t even feel like a human being half the time, and that’s just so liberating. Who’s going to want that from me? We view society almost like a Tetris landscape – this will fit into this position. We take these bite-sized chunks and we create our own reality out of our framed prejudices. Beckett blows all that out of the water and gives me the most enormous landscape to play with, but he’s very precise, and you have to be very technically astute to get it right.

QThe White Review — Beckett’s plays are generally split between the genders, so they will have male or female protagonists or narrators. These gender roles have never really been interfered with, but hypothetically speaking, are there roles that you would be interested in taking on that are traditionally performed by men?

ALisa Dwan — I subscribe to the belief that there is man and woman in everybody – certainly I feel my subconscious has a very male voice a lot of the time, and I really feel that the word ‘he’ is embedded in ‘she’. I think Beckett hid a lot. Despite the fact that he was very brave and pursued truth, I don’t think he went the whole mile. He wrote down the truth and then he hid it, like burying treasure. Part of his paring away and the reduction and ‘vagueing’ – to ‘vaguerise’ or to make things more oblique, opaque, and vague – he did to hide his traces. That often happened in his female roles, although he is more present in the later female roles. In Company and Ill Seen Ill Said he recalls his own memories, the real memories – and a lot of them are on full display in these three plays.

QThe White Review — While you were performing Not I there was some laughter from the audience. How do you feel about that reaction?

ALisa Dwan — I find it funny. I mean, you often laugh in despair at your own thought processes. I hate to say the words ‘the human condition’, but the human mind and our position are despairing and funny.  People were also laughing during the Mrs Winter’s story in Footfalls, when it’s the most extreme form of what Beckett called ‘mental thuggee’ in Eh, Joe: May is attempting to almost mentally murder her mother and people found that hilarious. I was shocked by that.

QThe White Review — It’s like you were saying – having a more visceral experience with the plays is what will pull these emotions out of people.

ALisa Dwan — It’s a shame, you see people robbing themselves of the experience by saying, ‘Well, I didn’t understand every single word, therefore I didn’t enjoy it,’ and you can see them laughing in despair at the fact that they’ve actually got it, but won’t give themselves permission to think that that’s a valid experience. Your confusion, and sense of hopelessness and despair, is the experience. Confusion, helplessness, and upset are not emotions we give enough credit to. 

I was asked to summarise Not I in one word – an impossible question – but I gave it a stab by saying, ‘For me, what it means is “defiance”.’ I still completely and utterly stand by that. It’s the same in Footfalls with May’s defiance with her mother, and in Rockaby in the face of death and inevitability. Beckett says in the last lines of The Unnamable: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on,’ and if that isn’t defiance in the face of everything – of hopeless, humorous despair – I don’t know what is. I find that so comforting. 

QThe White Review — Is that what allows you to continue performing?

ALisa Dwan — Absolutely. That’s the only thing. That and the poetry, and the beauty.

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby plays at the Duchess Theatre from 3-15 February. The trilogy will return with runs in Cambridge, Birmingham and Salford later in 2014, with international dates to be announced.

Rosie Clarke is a London-based writer and PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on the work of Samuel Beckett.

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