A mouth -and she is not afraid to use it
Katy Harrington meets Lisa Dwan, the fearless and outspoken actress bringing Beckett's most challenging role to a new audience
Facing the mirror in the dressing room of a North London theatre, an assistant pulling dozens of bobby pins out of her hair, sits the diminutive beauty Lisa Dwan, who has just finished rehearsing a trilogy of one-woman Beckett plays - Not I, Rockaby and Footfalls.
Dwan has been performing as the 'mouth' in Not I, known as one of the most difficult roles an actor can attempt, since 2005. In May 2013, it was staged at the Royal Court, 40 years after the theatre held the play's UK premiere in 1973. Following a sold-out and critically acclaimed run it moved to London's West End and now Dwan is getting ready to kick-start a year-long world tour. The first stop is Galway, where she began acting. (The Galway shows sold out in advance but there are Belfast dates in September).
Dwan produces her tattered copy of the play. Even on the page, with hundreds of short lines, separated only by ellipses and the odd stage direction such as 'Screams' or 'Silence', it looks daunting, never mind memorising and reciting it at the speed of thought, as Beckett intended.
Physically, the role demands much too. Dwan shows me her "new toy" for the tour, a motorised massaging chair. She'll need it, as for the duration of the high speed monologue she is suspended in what looks like a 'Gothic torture device meets S&M bondage gear'. To prepare, Dwan covers her face in black paint, blindfolds herself and puts a pair of tights over her head. All the audience sees is an illuminated disembodied mouth moving eight feet above the stage.
"It pulls all my muscles... it's very strenuous" she says of the harness she is strapped into daily. As the three one- woman shows are wholly dependent on Dwan (she has no understudy) she is approaching the tour "like an athlete".
Back pain and a hernia aside (she kindly offered to let me feel it), Dwan says it "feels amazing" to bring this work to Ireland. And not just Ireland, but to the Galway theatre she started out in as a teenager. Growing up in Athlone, the youngest of four children, Dwan was "the baby in every way". Her father and aunts acted in the amateur circles but it was dance that Dwan first took refuge in to "escape normal life".
She studied ballet and at 12 was chosen to dance with Rudolf Nureyev when he came to Ireland. Injury prevented her dancing career really taking off, but when she started acting "the penny dropped".
Happily single, the 36-year- old has been in London for 13 years now. She lives in leafy, luvvie Hampstead and despite being "utterly clueless" when she arrived ("I didn't know where the return button was on a computer") Dwan didn't sink, she swam. Still, her parents were concerned about the actor's life she chose so flying them to London to see their daughter in the West End was a thrill she says, showing me pictures of them beaming in front of her billboard. We met the week before she kick-starts her tour in Ireland and Dwan is excited.
"I can't wait to get back to Galway. I can't tell you what it means to me", says Dwan, although as an actor she has found the West End and the Royal Court more welcoming than home.
"Dublin is a bit of a closed shop." The refusals she got there were "very loud, resolute and frightened" and yet she misses home, the humour, the language.
"I miss not having a permanent sense of home, a place for my books" she says, and there is a romantic notion in her head of a house in Galway where she's making scones and writing a book. Children are definitely on Dwan's 'to do' list too but she has an awful lot to accomplish first. Not I was performed first in the US by the actress Jessica Tandy in 1972. Tandy took 22 minutes to recite the torrent of staccato words and Beckett was not happy ("You've ruined my play" he told Tandy backstage). Under Beckett's own direction, English actress Billie Whitelaw's lauded performance took 14 minutes; Dwan does it in fewer than nine.
"It's not a race," she explains, but "it has to go past logic". Beckett's strategy was to bypass the audience's intellect so they "have to surrender and let the piece play live music on their nerves." Dwan's performance certainly takes you to the edge. Watching it feels like an acid trip; it's mesmeric. Dwan deliberately avoided Whitelaw's shadow at first.
"I didn't want to have any reference point that I was trying to copy or emulate, I just wanted to do it myself." Dwan's landmark performance last summer united the critics with five-star reviews and even got the nod of approval from Edward Beckett, keeper of the Beckett estate. Eventually when Dwan did meet Whitelaw they greeted "like two long lost war veterans". A year later Whitelaw invited Dwan to her home to share Beckett's directions.
Dwan didn't know if she'd ever perform Not I again, but she couldn't refuse an offer to hear Sam's own notes. Whitelaw didn't share notes as such, instead she sat Dwan at her kitchen table, said 'begin' and conducted her the same way Beckett had done to her years earlier. The play attracted Dwan because "there's defiance in it". There's defiance in Dwan too. She has worked extensively in TV and film but while other roles are less demanding, she despairs at playing "cardboard cut-outs of what a woman is". Her reaction is not to whine about a lack of expansive female parts, but to roll up her sleeves and write them herself.
"It's shoulder to the wheel. I get off my ass and do it myself. I wanted these plays put on so I had to produce them." Her advice for anyone starting out is simply this: "No is just someone's opinion." Driven and determined as she is, Dwan has taken her fair of hard knocks too. One director told her: "The problem with you is you don't look how you sound". Another said "act your age" and that she was too young to play one particular role. The knocks hurt but they "humbled" her too and "softened the hard edges".
She rolls her eyes when people say Beckett is inaccessible. "It's not about intellect, it's very visceral". Dwan has performed the play to her young nieces and to an audience of park-bench drunks in Battersea park, and they all "got it".
One of the major sources of opposition Dwan met was the belief that Beckett doesn't sell. "Loads of people said that to me", she explains. And yet, in 2009, the show sold out.
The Royal Court was wary of Beckett too but tickets for that run were snapped up in four hours and they had to extend the run. When they transferred to the West End, with no time to market the plays, it sold out again, attracting a predominately young audience.
It was bolstered again when one of Beckett's closest collaborators and friends, German director Walter Asmus, saw Dwan perform the piece and came backstage to tell her he wanted to direct her in this trilogy. Together, she says, they make a team of "fiddlers, fussers, obsessives".
With the theatre about to be locked up for the night, Dwan continues chatting as we walk to the nearest Tube station. On route we pass two shabbily suited old men, one sitting on a park bench, one standing beside him with a carrier bag in hand. Dwan snaps a quick picture on her phone, "So Beckettian" she says. Maybe, but she might well be obsessed.
Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby by Samuel Beckett, directed by Walter Asmus, starring Lisa Dwan will be performed at The MAC, Belfast. September 2-6.
Sunday Indo Living