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Review | Summer and Smoke at The Duke of York’s Theatre

Summer and Smoke at the Duke Of Yorks Theatre directed by Rebecca Frecknall - photo credit Marc Brenner.

A poetic vision of human nature and our existential struggle to forge the middle ground between body and soul. After writing his (in)famous A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams gave birth to Summer and Smoke in 1948, and The London Magazine had the pleasure of attending the latest adaptation by director Rebecca Frecknall held at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

Summer and Smoke begins as an unruly exploration on human appetites, specifically focusing on sexual appetites and how suppressed desires can formulate into nervous dispositions.

Patsy Ferran as Alma Winemiller – Photo credit Marc Brenner.

Patsy Ferran did a superb job of embodying William’s Alma Winemiller – a frantic, naive and anxious being plagued by constant panic attacks and a permanently jittery disposition. Unable to understand her primal desires, she is simultaneously traumatised and aroused by even the slightest sexual inclination from her male peers. We come to find that her overly sensitive attitude is rather jarring, wanting her to act out on the primal desires that she fails to acknowledge rather than restricting herself in her need for piety and self-preservation. Though she possesses a humorous undertone, Alma is at large a devastating mirror for women carrying the burden of shame imposed by a rather soulless patriarchal world.

Matthew Needham as John Buchanan – Photo credit Marc Brenner.

Where Alma centres around the soul, William’s John Buchanan represents bodily desires. John is the personification of vibrant male energy turned wild in a stagnant and entrapping society. Matthew Needham‘s performance was powerful enough that the audience actually suffers as we witness John lead a path of selfishness, leaving only devastation and destruction in his wake. He, the archetypal southern man, is completely opposite to the prim and proper archetypal southern woman who is innocent, delicate, devotional and self-sacrificial. Male culture loud and exciting against the sheepishness of domestication. Always judging one another, and yet, the irony is that both are acting out of fear, though it is a fear for completely different things.

“… We operate under the misguided belief that the soul is bodiless, and the body is soulless..”

The two juxtaposing psychologies establish the uneasy link between the body and the soul at the heart of all human experience. We operate under the misguided belief that the soul is bodiless, and the body is soulless. Spirit and flesh against each other. Rather, the two require a co-existence which we do not allow for. Christianity demanding humility and purity where male tradition demands competitiveness and aggressiveness, the two are never given the space to intertwine.

Summer and Smoke at the Duke Of Yorks Theatre – photo credit Marc Brenner.

Summer and Smoke’s second act is centred around metamorphosis, as self-destructive tendencies reach a devastating climax.

The emotional presence of Patsy Ferran playing Alma was pretty outstanding as she shifts from nervous, frantic, and jittery into a deeply melancholic sadness. Loneliness and rejection are at the heart of her metamorphosis, with no stable personality possible in such a hostile and confining environment. We knew that change was going to come as John presented the audience with the idea that alma possesses a trapped doppelgänger at the beginning of the play – the second half is thus our witnessing of the doppelgänger gradually coming into consciousness. Alma becomes defiant against authority, and as cold emotionally, spiritually and verbally as winter, her suppressed desires becoming explicit as she recognizes her own divided nature.

“Tell them I’ve changed, and you’re waiting to see in what way” she exclaims.

Much to our dismay, even though Alma moves past propriety and sets a path towards sensual pleasures, John moves towards tradition and away from bodily pleasures. A fatal passing of two ships at night, it seems fated that John and Alma’s two worlds will never collide.

Frecknall’s dimly-lit and atmospheric pays homage to Williams original intention for a more sentimental than realistic world. Frecknall was experimental with her use of prop, occupying the stage with five beautifully rustic grand pianos that provided the acoustic soundtrack. Though we did not witness the extravagant skies and colour harmonies that Williams stressed for, we experienced a new and innovative touch on a classic that highly paid off. The actors valiantly embodied their roles and offered acute representations of Williams symbolic characters – perhaps the only jarring characterisation was the portrayal of the Mexican characters which felt a little outdated in their drunken misogyny, though Frecknall was staying faithful to Williams whose characterisation is a reflection of his times. Nevertheless, Anjanna Vasan provided a beautifully tantalizing portrayal of they young seductress Rosa Gonzales, a familiar face seen in TV series Black Mirror. The passion of our playwright Tennessee Williams was apparent in the very fibres of this recent adaptation.

Summer and Smoke at the Duke Of Yorks Theatre – photo credit Marc Brenner.

A heart-breaking play, with a powerful symbolic message on human experience; do not miss Rebecca Frecknall’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams highly-acclaimed Summer and Smoke, running until January 19th.

Words by Briony Willis.


Tennessee Williams Summer and SmokeDirected by Rebecca Frecknall

Duke of York’s Theatre, Saturday 10th  November 2018 – Saturday 19th January 2019



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Review | Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith

The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith, taken by Tristram Kenton

The coats stand out in the exhilarating performance piece Fatherland now on at the Lyric, Hammersmith after its premiere in the Manchester International Festival in 2017. The armour of manhood in the 21st century. Men in black, beige and tan coats.  Leather jackets. Tracksuit tops.  Parkas.  Faceless firemen in what might as well be hazmat suits in a nightmare of X- Files proportions. Marching, swaying, writhing, climbing, dropping from the sky. Using ladders and doorways to fly.  Gathered in a workers’ or maybe hobos’ circle around the glow of a bonfire and marching through the streets like a massed football army but with flags that appear to be made of delicate silk. The sole flash of colour is the red of a Man U top standing out for its brightness in the gloom as much as for its ancient sponsor’s logo.

And only men’s voices are heard – from baleful to operatic.  At one stage the 13 men on stage are joined by massed voices from the aisles and circle. The men (like the audience thankfully) are diverse in ethnicities and accents. Fatherland finds myriad stunning ways to express verbatim testimony collected from small-town England and echoed through songs and chants against Karl Hyde’s brooding soundtrack which booms or whispers. Telling stories of harrowing sadness about fathers lost or never known. These are the stories of “real” men where real means from Kidderminster, Stockport and Bewdley and emphatically still there. Men who haven’t left to join the metropolitan elites which the creators Hyde, Scott Graham and Simon Stephens aren’t afraid to allow themselves to be mockingly identified with. And the men in Fatherland don’t want to leave their home towns: one character is sure that the place you grew up in makes you who you are.

The question reverberating through the show is “what is the earliest memory of your father?” In his memoir And When Did you Last See Your Father? Blake Morrison describes unflinchingly the black, white and greys of his relationship with his dad, the contradictions of the respected professional and family man who nonetheless seems addicted to small petty triumphs and finding ways to cheat the system.  And not only his father’s status as a figurehead is ambiguous: looking back through the family tree he finds a “heritage of neglect” and the example of “the Absent Father, who had his story too, grief and nervous breakdown”. In the media to be a contemporary father is almost automatically flawed – notable usually  for being both needed and not there –  and the paternal relationships of the men in Fatherland  portray all those complexities and then some.

Fatherland is not just about fathers – it’s very much about being a son too and the pain of one not being able to connect with the other. Women and girls are mentioned of course – what is stark and powerful is the love of fathers for the daughters they protect or raise single-handedly. But the stage is a space for men’s stories and movement, the raggedy bravado of their cockiness a front for aching tales of not being loved. As one character says: we all hurt.

My favourite depictions: Graham (Neil McCaul), whose affable Dad Zero unpacks his childhood scars; Mel’s (Michael Begley) hymn of a climb into horror which defies any attempt to pigeonhole his chirpy Black County persona; Daniel (David Judge), brittle, fragile and still standing through his own battles with mental health; and the scarcely buried violence of Alan (Joseph Alessi) whose stare, stance or even slight pause convey years of “being a bit handy”.

But Fatherland isn’t just a journey through the bad bits of being a man – it finds ways to lift you into admiration and eventually joy including with a stunning flash mob chorus on the night I attended in the bar post-show. I smiled a lot not least because of the gratingly incongruous but perfectly fitting reference to the children’s movie Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the tongue-tied and repressed father in that story who needs a machine to make his love audible.

The poet John Hegley explores his relationship with his father in several pieces in the collection The Sound of Paint Drying. One poem October ’71 describes how Hegley Senior presented his son with his old artist’s brushes. Hegley Junior asks his dad why he gave up painting and finds the answer is:  He gave up for me to go on. Fatherland’s stunning visions will leave men asking themselves what legacy they will be remembered for. Go see it.

Fatherland is at the Lyric Hammersmith until June 23rd, 2018

By Alexis Keir


Review | Red at Wyndham’s Theatre

Image by Johan Persson

Walking into the Wyndham, the stage takes you by surprise. Alfred Molina sits unmoving, back to the audience, staring fixedly at one of the many deep crimson paintings that loom over the stage. Instantly, we find ourselves in Mark Rothko’s studio circa late 1950s.

There is little plot to Red; the short play’s events circle around Rothko’s commission for a Four Seasons restaurant in New York and his resentment for the new pop-artists nipping at his heels, but it is his diatribes at young assistant Ken that overshadow all else. At first, Rothko appears god-like in his commands, teaching Ken and the audience how to view his paintings; and yet as the years go by and Ken becomes disenchanted with Rothko, we see a certain vulnerability and the cracks begin to show in his character.

Molina dominates the stage and entrances with his lectures and theories on colour and art. He is utterly convincing in his indifference to Ken, completely selfish and absorbed in his art with an intensity that is felt from the moment that you walk into the theatre. He portrays the perfect contrast; his bullying of Ken a striking polarity to his almost fatherly protection of the inanimate. Rothko’s spiralling is beautifully played out, and Molina exudes his internal conflict perfectly whilst avoiding the cliché of the tortured artist.

On the other hand, for the most part I found Alfred Enoch unconvincing as Ken. Rothko’s assistant is there to mix paint and fetch coffee, but ultimately to act as an audience and foil for Rothko’s philosophical rants. Enoch’s acting for most of the play feels forced and uncertain, his timing slightly off. That said, he grows as Ken does, particularly during his character’s retaliation to Rothko’s apathy and hypocrisy. His real shining moment is talking about his parent’s murder. This contrived plot point, echoed by the intense on-stage painting that leaves both actors and stage looking as though they are splattered in blood, hit home purely through Enoch’s performance. Staring at the spraying of paint, tears glistening in his eyes, Enoch takes a hollow plot point and gives it life.

This spectacular set which both looks and acts as a real studio, is filled with vibrant paintings which pulse and suffocate the work space. I am somewhat doubtful that Rothko would have held such eloquently enlightened and lively discussions in his real studio, however the dialogue and performance here is excellent. Whilst the play itself feels somewhat empty, the staging and performance of Red fill it and make it well worth a watch, particularly for art-lovers.

Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre until July 28th 2018 

By Emma Quick

Review | Absolute Hell – Pissed In Purgatory

Kate Fleetwood taken by Johan Persson (2018). Featured on NationalTheatre.

Rodney Ackland’s play ‘Absolute Hell’ (at the National Theatre until 16 June) is like spying on a drunken party through a club door. The first hour is intoxicating, in a salacious sort of way, but then it all starts to feel a bit maudlin and you just want them to drink up so you can go home.

The play takes place in ‘La Vie en Rose’, a seedy Soho drinking den (modelled on the Colony rooms) full of confused, desperate characters seeking sex and oblivion. It is set in the summer of 1945, in a war weary London that is under the shadow of Auschwitz and on the brink of a Labour Government. Although the clientele are determined to hide from the outside world, the gold veneer of the club begins to peel away, revealing the dull undercoat of post war life.

When it was first produced in 1952, as the ‘Pink Room’, the homosexuality was played down but the sordid, decadent world it depicted was still too much for the respectable theatre audiences of the time. It soon ended Ackland’s career. It was only until 1988 when it was re-discovered, first at the Orange Tree in Richmond, and then again at the National with Judi Dench who also starred in the 1991 BBC film of the play.

It runs on for over 3 hours and, although it has a cast of nearly thirty members, there are only 2 real characters – Christine, the lonely, emotionally fragile club owner (a charismatic and sensual Kate Fleetwood) and Hugh a gay, failing-writer (brilliantly played by Charles Edwards) who is constantly on the cadge. Esh Alladi is excellent in the minor role of camp dogsbody Cyril Clatworthy. Sinead Matthews wrings out some emotion as hedonist Elizabeth. The rest of the ensemble (black GIs, gay critics, film producers, tormented artists, black marketers and a prostitute name Fifi who endlessly circles the streets of nearby Piccadilly) only serve to emphasise the real subject of the play – the desperate desire to escape a bombed out London through the neck of a bottle.

There are moments of real humour in the play (some of it dated) and the action is skilfully choreographed however, the last two scenes of the play are rushed, unsatisfactory and could be cut. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins does his best to make the play relevant but, the truth is, nothing much happens and watching others getting drunk is rather boring. By the end the jokes have turned stale and the characters’ search for sex has gone flaccid. The club literally starts to fall apart around them, the party is over and the hangover has already started to set in.

The final word of the play is hell.

Absolute Hell is running until 16th June at the National Theatre/ Lyttelton theatre.

By David Ford

Review | The Inheritance at The Young Vic

Photo by Simon Annand

The Inheritance stands at almost seven hours long: Matthew Lopez’s two-part, self-aware epic on the legacy of gay men past-and present. Treating everything from the devastation of a post-AIDs generation and the LGBT reaction to the Trump-era, The Inheritance paints a vivid image what it means to be homosexual and living in modern day New York.

Openly narrated, a cast of beautiful men collaboratively recount a tapestry of stories, circling around the pair who sit at the epicentre of the performance – Toby and Eric. The Inheritance is a testament to the power of storytelling; the men squabble over details, however ultimately their paths are set for them – inherited from and dictated by the events that have passed before them. It is at times both heart-wrenching and hilarious, with themes as universal as love, or as specific as Trump, being handled in a way that is quite simply innovative.

Lopez is unafraid of pausing the plot to make way for intense debate on LGBT culture, privilege and poverty; he deftly avoids lecturing the audience, and instead weaves fair, impassioned and considered points into the dialogue between characters. The audience (speaking particularly as a white, straight woman) does not feel isolated but rather included in these debates, forbidden from a feeling of disinterest and implicated in the grappling of these issues.

The cast sit around a deceptively bare, table-like stage which rises and falls throughout. Devoid of all but a few props, it is the intricate dialogue and narration that paints the settings, transporting the audience better than any elaborate set might. Lopez’s writing is undeniably beautiful and uninhibited, coming alive against such a simple backdrop.

The actor’s handling of the text is also exceptional, with many a stand-out performance. Kyle Soller brings alive a potential ‘safe’ character with his conveyance of Eric’s inherent decency, which contrasts perfectly with the tragedy of Toby’s complete self-absorption and route to destruction, portrayed by Andrew Burnap. A few actors handle multiple characters, however it is Samuel H Levine flipping between the confidence of Adam and the uncertain self-consciousness of Leo, even during the same scene, which is spell-binding. Similarly, Paul Hilton’s portrayal of both Walter and Morgan Forster is stellar. Walter’s quiet humanity paired with the representation of Morgan as a caring but measured British man in a tweed jacket truly epitomises just how far the LGBT community has come in recent years. This is a cast dominated by men, and whilst Vanessa Redgrave’s appearance in the latter parts of the play is moving, it is incomparable to the ambitious speeches and constant presence of the other cast members.

A play of this length is certainly an undertaking, and this features as the gag of many a joke throughout. I had a little more processing time than most, seeing the two parts with a week in between. Whilst the end of part one is not left on a cliff-hanger as such, I was still desperate to see the second even a week later. The soap-opera like nature of the multiple storylines left me wanting for more, even having seen part two.

The Inheritance is fundamentally significant and utterly enjoyable; the perfect combination of comedy and genuine issues tied together perfectly with a stunning script. Whilst this marathon of a play may feel like a commitment, it is one you will not regret.

The Inheritance is now booking for its West End transfer at the Noel Coward Theatre, 21st September 2018 – 5th January 2019 

By Emma Quick

Review | Three Women at The Trafalgar Studios

3 Women (2018) banner taken from LondonTheatreDirect

Katy Brand’s Three Women at the Trafalgar Studios offers a representation of the title across respective and somewhat stereotypical generations. 

Suzanne, a crystal-loving 40-year old played by Debbie Chazen, is facing trauma stemming from her childhood, which surfaces throughout the evening. Chazen perfectly executes a bitter rivalry between her and mother Eleanor, played by Anita Dobson, and reveals just the right amount of emotional upheaval from her loss of love. 

Maisie Richardson-Sellers adds an interesting and sometimes offbeat character to the mix. Laurie is portrayed as the peace-keeper whose beliefs surrounding post-genderism dictate a large amount of her lines. Richardson-Sellers performance feels forced at times, possibly due to the constant stream of information that her character is instructed to feed to her peers. Although sporadically comical, it is just that, and appeared as though she was reading from a chapter of a non-fiction, Millenial analysis. 

But it’s Dobson who takes centre stage, not only providing the much-needed comic relief with her witty one-liners and blasé view of her family’s approach to life, but also with her emotional collapse towards the end of the show. This display of impassioned contrition proved Dobson’s worthiness of her extensive acting career and left me satisfied at the believability of the show. 

Brand has written a confounding piece which appears to be mostly based on a societal view of generations today. Although it faces some difficulties in plot and characterisation, it is worth seeing for Dobson’s performance alone.

Three Women is running until the 9th June at the Trafalgar Studios.

By Lucy Morris

The Glass Menagerie at the Duke of York’s Theatre


Cherry Jones returns to the role of Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Tiffany. This London revival of American theatre’s classic memory play may be the timely antidote we need.

Like a softening dust, olive-ashen light floats among fading Victorian-style lampshades, a writing desk, a frumpy crimson settee, the trove of animal statuettes centre-front. Looming in the background is a fire escape that ramrods to the rafters, its stage level serving as the entrance to this ‘hive-like’ tenement apartment in 1930s St Louis. John Tiffany’s revival of The Glass Menagerie begins with the expected direct address: a mature Tom (played by Michael Esper), now in control of his life and career, looks back at his past, piece by piece. ‘The play is memory,’ Tom says. Actually, it is a ghost story in which Tiffany uses sound, the swapping of hysteria for more lightness, and a touch of choreography to give shape to the ghostliness of Tennessee Williams’ ‘picture of my own heart,’ his first chapter of author-family autobiographies. The production, which premiered in New York in 2013, and then featured in last year’s Edinburgh Festival, is aided by composer Nico Muhly’s twinkling but minimalist backdrop that avoids any whiff of frothy whimsy.

Of tenacious mother hens in English letters, we find ourselves warming to Cherry Jones’ role as Amanda—more bustling Mrs Weasley than hustling Mrs Bennett—likely coming as a shock to viewers who grew up with the éminence grise of Katharine Hepburn’s embodiment, which roiled on daytime television. Jones’ exultation on stage suggests that she is the only actress capable of a Southern accent who didn’t originally aspire to play Blanche, Williams’ withering Southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire. Jones lays an opulent Dixie brogue on thick. Her Amanda is a hardy prevailer, a nostalgist whose free-flowing dips into the past are not escape mechanisms strictly, but sustenance to carry her through the years of pain and social degradation created by bad choices made in first youth. In many ways, she does the dirty on Williams, stubbornly maintaining grace and love over the toxic interference that is necessary for us to want to run away from her, like Tom.

Kate O’Flynn once again harnesses her distinctive nasal squeak in order to intone Laura’s constant refrain: placating her mother’s stultifying concerns. ‘Mother, when you’re disappointed, you get that awful suffering look on your face, like the picture of Jesus’s mother in the museum,’ comes straight from O’Flynn’s nose, the last syllable of each phrase expanding like scales ringing on a xylophone and accentuating her character’s perpetual nervousness. While she is the play’s faint but central pulse who necessarily does not act, but is acted upon, O’Flynn’s Laura inherits some of the steely glint in her mother’s iron sunshine. The resignation that she unfurls after the Gentleman Caller, Jim (played with puppy-like exuberance by Brian J. Smith) kisses her, and then admits that he is already affianced, is a saddening jolt—like a cold shower of rain on a sunny day. ‘You—won’t—call again?’ she matter-of-factly states more than questions, letting the bomb hang in the air and then dropping it. Esper is better as a son than as narrator, especially when he is performing a kind of elevated honesty that mocks itself: ‘Well you’re right, Mother. I’m going to opium dens. Yes, mother. Opium dens. Dens of vice and criminal’s hangouts, mother, I am a hired assassin!’ Teasing his mother’s near-farcical enquiries into his twilight outings is all boyish shtick and put-on, a comic relief that increases our fondness for both characters but overshadows the story’s essential tension. In this way, Tom’s final abandonment seems less believable.

The choreographed gestures could come off as a gimmicky trick—Laura first emerges through a slit in the back of the sofa, for example, and, at the end, she dives back through. While Tiffany’s direction has been criticised for its departures from text-driven concerns, these moments are exquisite flourishes of reverie, especially the fleeting celestial duets between mother and daughter. If the production has a fault, it lies within Jones’ obvious pleasure in the role, left unchecked—if not emboldened—by the perceptible encouragement of the audience’s luxuriating smiles. The first act belongs entirely to her.

Today, much of the world expects awakening daily to the setting of the sun on a progressive era of American history, the country’s political reality steeped so heavily in its own neo-Victorian brand of backward-looking inspiration. Those hankering for warmer prelapsarian times will find temporary release in the luminescence that revives Williams’s first hit, which premiered in 1944—the middle of another period of deeply scarred American optimism. During the production’s two and a half hours, in a rare instance of cosmic collusion, a cell phone didn’t go off once.

By Megan Bradshaw

The Glass Menagerie

The Duke of York’s Theatre

Until 29 April 2017

No’s Knife at The Old Vic


‘… 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

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