No’s Knife

Old Vic Theatre, London (***)

© Manuel Harlan, Lisa Dwan

© Manuel Harlan, Lisa Dwan

There is Beckett, and then there is Beckett. There is the Beckett of Waiting for Godot and there is the Beckett of Not I and Footfalls; the one accessible, the others increasingly abstract. I remember sitting through Endgame at the Aldwych many years ago and wondering, `will this ever end?’ – heresy now for a man revered, honoured and much loved. Heretical thought but a similar reaction began to emerge last night during the super-talented Lisa Dwan’s 80 minute tour de force of Beckett’s No’s Knife.

Irish actor/director and Beckett specialist, Dwan’s Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby interpretation last year is already acquiring the status of legendary. I’m only sorry I missed it.

No’s Knife is Dwan’s own adaptation of Beckett’s little known Texts for Nothing (pub 1967 but written in the early 1950s) – a meditation truly on the many different existences that can take shape and substance in the human mind.

Watching Dwan, jammed within a cleft of Christopher Oram’s jagged rock face, legs seared in blood, words spewing out in no particular order, one moment vulnerable, the next arms like wings outstretched, a raging harpy, the tumult and the apparent sporadic nature of the thoughts recalled Happy Days.

But this persona, unlike Happy Days’ Winnie conveys none of the older woman’s, up to her armpits in sand, serenity. This is a young being, raging partly at an unknown `He’, snatches of past forcing themselves out of the thin frame, the only comfort coming from occasional glimpses of Nature – a valley, a zephyr wind. Or maybe that too was in my imagination.

© Manuel Harlan, Lisa Dwan

© Manuel Harlan, Lisa Dwan

A kind of recognition emerges from that first section. But come the next two – the scene changes to a bleak other-world, a lunar landscape of rocks and rolling mists – somewhere in its state of `nothingness’ and stasis, I lost whatever plot I may have been holding in my head.

I watched as in a kind of mesmerised state as Dwan pushed herself further and further, giving herself up until, in the final fourth section, breaking the fourth wall, she emerges at the front of the stage into full spotlight, exposed, and rails as I understood it, at a creator controlling her voice and story, demanding existence free of `His’ tyranny.

There’s no doubt as to Dwan’s extraordinary vocal and physical control, be she floating like a diaphanous apparition, half swimming, half dying before us at the start, or adopting gruff masculinity later.

She is everywoman and everyman, fluid, commanding, Beckett’s words incantatory in her mouth but without the clarity of an Olwen Fouere with her riverrun physical embodiment of James Joyce’s river from Finnegan’s Wake.

© Manuel Harlan, Lisa Dwan

© Manuel Harlan, Lisa Dwan

I’m in awe of Dwan’s intensity, commitment and occasional lyricism, the harsh grind of her Beckett rhythms but I longed too for some vocal beacon that might take me deeper. Last night, I failed to fully grasp it.

No’s Knife runs at the Old Vic Theatre, London to Oct 15, 2016

Review published on this site, Oct 6, 2016

No’s Knife
Adapted from Texts for Nothing
By Samuel Beckett

Conceived and performed by Lisa Dwan
Co-directed by Lisa Dwan and Joe Murphy
Design by Christopher Oram
Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone
Sound design by Mic Pool
Movement by Fin Walker

World premiere of No’s Knife, at the Old Vic Theatre, London, Sept 29, 2016