Lisa Dwan: 'People are desperate to put me back in my box'
Lisa Dwan has been described as the 'foremost inheritor' of the power of Beckett's prose. Siobhán Brett meets up with the Irish actor in New York as she prepares to bring her one-woman show based on the playwright's Texts for Nothing to the Abbey
Lisa Dwan is sitting on edge of a stool in the window of a café on Lafayette Street, damp hair pulled into a low ponytail, second double espresso at her elbow. She throws open her arms for a hug. Dwan is smaller than me, shorter than me, and bigger than me in every other conceivable way.
"I love you!" she shouts at her director. "You're gorgeous!" she cries at a waitress with an amped-up "thanks".
From the stage, the Athlone-born actor has compelled people in all across the world to cry, endure panic attacks, and to write effusive blog posts on the train home from theatre.
Described by The New Yorker as the "foremost inheritor" of the power of the prose of Samuel Beckett, Dwan returns to Ireland next month to perform No's Knife, her own selection and interpretation of the writer's Texts for Nothing.
In March 2016, having done it for 11 years, Dwan played the role of Mouth in Not I for the final time. It's an exacting Beckett monologue designed to be delivered at the speed of thought by a pair of disembodied lips. Her personal best hovered somewhere between seven and eight minutes -diction crisp, not a beat fudged.
Much has been made of the particular rigour with which Dwan approached the role she played internationally for more than a decade: meticulously blacking out both face and stage, blindfolding herself, wedging her body between bars to immobilise otherwise dynamic limbs, and ferociously running lines at home while, in a bid to replicate the detention, tied to a bannister.
Six months after performing Not I for the last time, Dwan brought No's Knife to the stage of London's Old Vic. Back at home in London, she ran daily on Hampstead Heath ("to give myself courage"), often while listening to Nick Cave. In the dark of backstage, she was told in a whisper that Cave was in the audience. And one night a brush with pneumonia led to her running lines on her back on an intravenous drip. Dwan does not stop.
Today in New York, she makes light work of a burger after a morning at SoulCycle. Fries, some; bun, no. Hers is the preparation of a marathon runner or climber. Rigour and form, she says, stop something from being "wank".
"An actor said to me recently: 'You speak a different language to us. I don't know what you're doing, but it's not acting'. I have thought about that a huge amount while I've been here. And I think, you know what? He's right. And I'm grateful for it."
Dwan says the comment, not intended to engender confidence of any kind, prompted her to "dig deep into my ballet training, deep into my music training, deep into my knowledge of poetry, philosophy, of the Greeks, and my knowledge of society, of how the brain works, of how thought works. I don't have any interest, now, in perpetuating the myth of 'women' that we sell. I don't want to sell that to the next generation".
Dwan has to fit in a run-through, and we leave the café and trip down the street. "If he's right, that actor, that's really liberating. Because if an actor, and my role, is literally just to be a reflector board for your brilliance," she says, suddenly stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, "to stand there and look at you the whole time and make you the object of the public's adoration? Then, no. I'm not an actor. But if an actor is to be a slice of life? A slice of the universe? To have bird, woman, man, child, water, earth, air, all in this body? Then, yeah. I'll take that role."
We start walking again.
"I've had two double espressos," Dwan says, in a breathy aside. "I am so jacked-up." She can be funny.
Dwan says she is grateful to Beckett for allowing her to resist "colossal forces" pushing her back.
"We are all seeking the next white, male prophet. The world isn't prepared yet to push the idea of woman. I recognise now that people are desperate to put me back into my box, and teach me a lesson, and that can be a very threatening thing," she says.
London was home to Dwan since the early 2000s, but she became an artist-in-residence at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University in late 2015 and became the bearer of a US green card last year. This year she took up a second residency, at Princeton, where she has since been teaching.
Dwan came to New York to, among other things, get away from "ownership" of Beckett.
"There are wonderful exponents of Beckett in Ireland, but they feel like they own him. That church does not welcome new thought or new voices or expansion of those parameters. It threatens them. I will go where it's warm," she says determinedly. "Otherwise, I will build the territory myself."
Manhattan traffic and passers-by are reflected in the vast mirrors that run the perimeter of the ground-floor rehearsal space. "Just remember," Dwan says, hauling open a door. "It's a rehearsal."
She kicks off her shoes and, in white-and-pink running socks, takes her place in the middle of the room and begins. She tears off her cardigan mid-line and generally moves with the language in a way that makes it seem the words are issuing from different parts of her body. For as long as she performs, who knows how long, my eyes do not move from her.
"A few mistakes," she says flatly, a throwaway, mere beats after finishing. She insists that her team ensure every phrase "is rooted, and true, and real", costing her "something massive". "I don't need a get-along gang," she says. "I need people I can trust." In our conversation about the process of selecting from Texts on Nothing, Dwan digs her iPhone out of her bag. "The thing that inspired me most," she says, in a slightly weary voice, "was this".
On the screen is a photo of one of the bog bodies in the National Gallery. "I am down in the hole the centuries have dug," she begins. The rest of the line, which Dwan repeats quickly at different junctures throughout our conversation is: "…centuries of filthy water, flat on my face on the dark earth sodden with the creeping saffron waters it slowly drinks.
"When you think about these bodies… not only do you think of Jean McConville, you think of the Tuam babies. The stubborn vestiges of life, and the suppression of identity, the suppression of voices."
Dwan prods at her sternum.
"You don't have to dig deep, as an Irish woman, to find that."
She says she no longer thinks she can call Ireland home, explaining she has "huge emotional ambiguity to the place".
"I love it, and it hurts me, so there's this love and loathing going on that I think a lot of artists suffer from. And just that notion of home is a very painful one.
"In a country where there wasn't a lot of céad míle fáiltes for me, quite frankly, I have been going where it's warm."
Dwan rattles off the people and the institutions in the US who she says came to her: Princeton, NYU, Columbia, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the household-name TV interviewer Charlie Rose.
"I don't think a personality like mine would have survived in Ireland," she says. "I couldn't have existed, so I had no choice. And they gave me no choice. I never had an audition at the Abbey, or the Gate. I couldn't work. I couldn't be."
She borrows another relied-on line from Texts of Nothing: "Who would I be, if I could be? What would I say if I had a voice?"
Dwan believes it was necessary for her to leave Ireland and notes she is "one of the lucky ones who can". Later she will say she is extremely lucky to be allowed on the stages she is. Lucky, sure, but deserving, I suggest. The suggestion is dismissed.
"There's loads of artists who are 'deserving'," she says. "Probably even more deserving. Think of all the women who were never given a chance to speak. All of the artists never given a chance to speak.
"'Who would I be, if I could be? What would I say if I had a voice?' I have been thinking of migrants washing up on shores, of baby Aylan Kurdi. I can't get that image out of my head. And how because we've branded someone a migrant, or a Muslim, they don't have the right to exist."
Dwan says she does not think she has encountered any set of texts, or any work so pertinent, so timely, as the one she is again preparing to perform.
"It's so resonant. it's so hot. But I can't tell the big stories. I can't go and say [assuming a deep, mock-serious voice] this is a political piece about…" she trails off. "I can only make it my own truth."
No's Knife runs from June 10 to June 17 at the Abbey Theatre