Saturday 24 March 2018

Little empathy in Dwan's 'No's Knife'

Emer O'Kelly finds Lisa Dwan's much-heralded Beckett interpretation a disappointment

Even the title No's Knife implies anguish, the anguish of too much awareness of nothingness and our helplessness in the face of it. And for Samuel Beckett it was more than the philosophical concept on which the world depends. He knew about nothingness: he had to absorb it in invisibility during his time with the French Resistance. He had to fight it during his years teaching in Trinity when it threatened to overwhelm him, and his mother arranged for her son to be treated by a psychiatrist.

"No's knife in yes's wound" negates hope. And presumably, taking that phrase from one of the 13 Texts for Nothing that were written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and following close on the completion of the publication of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, to use as the centre for performance of four of the 13 Texts for Nothing, is acknowledging the primacy of nihilism. Cause enough for anguish to stalk the stage, one would think.

Yet in No's Knife, re-staged for a short run at the Abbey Theatre (apparently without input from Joe Murphy, the co-director of the original Old Vic production last year), Lisa Dwan singularly manages to avoid anguish. There is a lot else in her performance: great stage presence, a rich and operatic voice, a sinuously beautiful body that she uses to perfection. But, despite the extraordinary achievement of memory which must in itself be an exhaustion, there is no apparent sign of exhaustion of the soul. She is not a woman/man in numb despair at being dead in living. And that should be the essence of the anguish in the texts.

The original voice in the texts is that of a man. Dwan, in her programme note, dismisses that necessity (and records that the author had been willing at one stage to consider allowing performance in a woman's voice). Cross-gendering of roles and texts is certainly a fashionable choice in theatre nowadays; yet Beckett was never unaware of the female and therefore in need of having its voice injected into his work from an external source.

Significantly, Dwan's reputation as a Beckett interpreter rests on a trilogy of plays for women: Rockaby, Not I, and Footfalls. But in the case of No's Knife, perhaps aware of the need to convince of the authenticity of a new "form" of voice, she creates, presumably deliberately, different personae for each of the four pieces, where in the original, the determinedly personalised agony of a single voice, one human in different modes of despair, adds to the hopeless intensity.

Yet the rest of the concept is visually imaginative, with Christopher Oram's wild brown-red moonscape set creating a habitat that is all prison. As she asks herself "what possessed you to cope?" As a rumination on the "all you have to do is stay home", home is a fissure in a high rock, in which Dwan, Ariel-like, seems trapped.

"Will me a body; will me a head," she entreats in the second text, splashing across a rock-pooled ground like a frustrated and bored small girl; except that it is "no way to die" and "nobody will be here for many a long day" - isolation has not changed, merely changed location.

Text V, the third piece, with its judicial echoes, is delivered from a trapeze-like cage hung high above the stage as the Voice accuses itself: "to be is to be guilty". But even the acknowledgement of such ultimate existential guilt brings no release: the phantoms still come back; "They want to create me. They want to make me" in crushing repetition of the death of living.

Until finally, in Text IV, which closes the performance, the Voice muses that "a story is not compulsory" as she confronts her audience on our own level, finally accusing us. "That was the mistake I made." Outside her own body, the Voice watches: "Forget me, know me not, yes, that would be the wisest, none better able than he… I'm not in his head, nowhere in his old body and yet I'm there…" (Note the male analogy.)

It's easy to understand why Beckett was slow to permit the Texts for Nothing to become spoken works, much less fully performed. Their core being of gazing into nothingness, while almost disemboweling the reader/audience of self, requires a kind of oneness that is a rare gift in an actor.

And for all her technical excellence, Lisa Dwan fails to commit the kind of agonised hara-kiri required to drag the audience on the necessary hopeless journey. Regrettably, one leaves the theatre feeling as though one would be really short-changed on the Beckett "experience" were it not for the truly splendid production values of lighting (Hugh Vanstone and Tim Van t'Hof); sound (Mic Pool); and, of course, Oram's overall visual concept. Dwan, herself, is co-director.

Sunday Independent

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