No’s Knife at The Old Vic

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‘… no need of a story, a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough.’―Samuel Beckett, Stories and Texts for Nothing

‘Dare, always dare.’ This was the favourite anthem of Lilian Bayliss, theatrical producer and former manager of The Old Vic from 1898 to 1937. Now these words are being used to inspire once again – emblazoned in red lights, they crown the entrance to The Old Vic’s lower stalls. Bayliss left a legacy of transformation – under her management The Old Vic went from being a mere hall and coffee tavern into a National Theatre and under her guidance the careers of John Gieguld, Laurence Olivier and Alec Guiness were nurtured, while stars such as Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton bought in audiences as they breathed new life into classic Shakespeare. Bayliss was always on the lookout for something fresh to bring the audience and repetition was to be avoided at all costs.

Taking this as his cue, Matthew Warchus, current Artistic Director, has been vocal about the new approach he is taking in trying to ‘present a much wider range of work, for a much wider audience’. Leading the way is the world premiere of Samuel Beckett’s No’s Knife. This staging, conceived and performed by Lisa Dwan and co-directed alongside Joe Murphy, is an adaptation of five out of the thirteen rarely performed prose pieces, Texts for Nothing, written by Beckett in the early 1950s. These texts were never intended for the stage so it is hardly surprising that Warchus has described this choice as ‘certainly not standard Old Vic programming’. This is unfamiliar territory; not just for The Old Vic, but for Beckett also.

Photo by Manuel Harlan
Photo by Manuel Harlan

‘I’ve given myself up for dead all over the place’ – Stories and Texts for Nothing

Dwan is arguably her generation’s foremost Beckett performer and she is a tour de force in this brave production. On a stage intended to evoke both an Irish bogland and a battlefield, the material world is stripped away, allowing Dwan to expose Beckett at his most tormented, wounded and exiled. For exile was Samuel Beckett’s muse. He believed just by being human we have suffered the ultimate banishment – we have all been booted out of Eden. Cast adrift from Paradise, alone we are in exile. None more so, it seems, than Dwan as she pulls the audience through a gruelling seventy minute monologue.

“Naught is more real than nothing.” – Malone Dies.

Beckett completed Texts for Nothing in 1952. The Unnamable came straight after in 1953, as the third and final entry in his “Trilogy” of novels, which began with Molloy and was followed by Malone Dies. These works are recollections and existential musings; all borne of the same womb. This was in the period when Beckett could not, for a better phrasing, stop going on a bit. His ramblings shout of an out of control, divided consciousness, desperately pouring out everything in an attempt to keep oblivion at bay. While his later works were to become more compact, his prose in the early 1950s was in a state of perplexing angst. Beckett was in an existential no man’s land. Now on stage, Dwan attempts to keep this battle going.

 

Photo by Manuel Harlan
Photo by Manuel Harlan

‘I am down in the hole the centuries have dug’ – Stories and Texts for Nothing

The play opens with Dwan encased in a rock crevice; fossilised inside a rocky womb. Darkness and barrenness all-pervading. Divided into three sections, we go onto find Dwan in a derelict, unforgiving wasteland before then levitating above the stage in complete darkness; the eerie staging not only holds the attention of the audience but also gives the sense of being stuck in an in-between state. This is at the heart of the production – for Beckett it was simple: as soon as there is birth, there is death; one foot in the womb, one foot in the grave – life being merely the abyss in-between. Death is omnipresent from the get-go and now, like a ghost, Dwan haunts the stage. The only note that Beckett left for a reading of this text was to ‘play on the nerves of the audience and not the intellect’ and to have it ‘spoken at the speed of thought’. Dwan’s voice is her key tool and the lilting lyricism and inherent rhythm of her performance is at times hypnotizing; from cajoling, to shrill wailing, to a whisper, to a thick Irish drawl. There is absolutely no plot, or character development to add anything to her performance. For Dwan is the body, mind and mouth of consciousness itself.

Dwan is no stranger to Beckett. After moving to London from Ireland in 2009, she produced Not I for the Southbank Centre; for this one-woman staging she became a disembodied mouth, exiled from her own body and self-containment and self-restraint were paramount. From 2013 to 2016, Walter Asmus directed her in a hugely successful Beckett trilogy which joined that work with Footfalls and Rockaby. Along the way she was advised and guided by Billie Whitelaw, before her death in 2014. Whitelaw had collaborated with Beckett for twenty-five years and was regarded as one of his foremost interpreters of his works. Perhaps then this is where Dwan learned that Beckett was not adverse to these prose pieces being performed on stage.

As a director Beckett was renowned for wanting blood, guts and emotion from his actors. And Dwan gives this amply; she has bled for Beckett, she has been blindfolded and harnessed for Beckett. She does not seem at all intimidated by Beckett, which she easily could, as he demands a particular style of performance. She is formidable and unflinching in her interpretation. Beckett is known for setting rigid stage instructions. But there is the catch; there are no stage instructions or indeed any structure in the performance of these prose pieces. For a former dancer; who at 12, had danced with Rudolf Nureyev when he performed in Dublin, she somehow restrains herself; whether in a rock or floating above ground.

‘Nothing human is foreign to us.’ – Stories and Texts for Nothing

The central question in this interpretation of Beckett is whether these texts are purely personal abstraction, or if they are metaphors and allegories for more grounded, contemporary issues. Truthfully, it is difficult to say. The line between personal and political is blurred. Often, the sheer absurdity of Beckett’s despair which saw him stripping away the meaning, getting down to the nothingness of life; makes it seem that it is not the case of the glass being half empty or half full; the glass is already in shards. Dwan makes no bares about how political the piece is for her. From the battle for abortion rights which is currently being fought in her home country, to the current refugee crisis, the contemporary relevance of the piece is undeniable. Human condition never changes and the wounds are universal. So we best get sticking that glass back together again.

Photo by Manuel Harlan
Photo by Manuel Harlan

‘no’s knife” may be plunged in “yes’s wound’– Stories and Texts for Nothing

The potency of this production is dense, expansive and over-whelming. At times you feel left out to dry by the sheer impenetrability of the prose with the sheer absurdity of Beckett’s existential questioning and musings making it uncomfortable viewing. But we must not think this as a bad thing: it is breathtakingly urgent and essential viewing. The character, wit and insight that Dwan brings saves this from being entirely depressing viewing. The lasting impression of this production is of Dwan shining a light into Beckett’s darkness. For all of the darkness, there is hope. Whereas Beckett left his prose starkly, no doubt purposely, incomplete, Dwan’s performance is vitally whole and ferociously enthralling. She daringly brings the texts back from exile, however harrowing the journey.

By Lucy Binnersley


No’s Knife by Samuel Beckett
The Old Vic
Until 15th October 2016