Karen Miller and I went to BAM to see Irish actress Lisa Dwan in a triple bill of short solo Samuel Beckett plays. The entire performance was under an hour long. At first I thought, “Only 55 minutes? Why isn’t she doing more? There are other short Beckett one-person plays, she could easily turn it into a full evening.” But Karen and I agreed, it WAS a full evening, you don’t want any more. It’s so bleak and heavy, 55 minutes is all you can take.
The first play was *Not I*, a ten-minute rant by a disembodied mouth. Beckett wrote that it should be performed “at the speed of thought”. Dwan first performed it in 2005, and was interviewed by Billie Whitelaw about performing the play. Whitelaw was the first person to perform *Not I*, and she coached Dwan on the piece, and also coached her on the two other pieces on the bill, *Footfalls* and *Rockaby*, which Beckett had written for her.
I described *Not I* as a ten-minute rant by a disembodied mouth - - I should explain. The actor sits in a chair, eight feet off the floor. The theater is completely dark. She’s lit so you can’t see her face, there’s just a tight spotlight on her mouth. Her mouth is the only thing you see onstage. It looked like the light was coming OUT OF her mouth, we don’t know how they managed that.
Whitelaw came to Madison and did a lecture/performance and showed a video of her performing *Not I*. She said it’s the only Beckett play she knows that works better on film than onstage, because on film you can easily and effectively do a close-up of the mouth. Karen and I were sitting fairly far away, and neither of us could see the mouth very well, we just saw the light flickering on it. There are a few moments where she opens her mouth wide and laughs or screams, and we could see that, but the rest was a little vague. It became about her vocal performance and the assault of the words, which was damn impressive.
The next play was *Footfalls*. The setting is a narrow strip of light. She walks from one end of the strip to another, slowly, taking nine steps each time. She’s having a conversation between herself and her mother, and walking back and forth endlessly is part of the ritual. Dwan used her voice skillfully to delineate between the two characters, and really held the stage in the minimal movement, she has beautiful poise. It was hypnotic.
The conversation is bleak and disorienting. I said to Karen, in the break before the final play:
ME: Is that what conversations are like between you and your mother?
HER: Yes, exactly. Except for the Irish accent.
HER: That’s what it’s going to be like on the cruise with your mom next year.
ME: Oh Jesus. Good thing I bought trip insurance, I can still cancel and get my money back.
Yes, my mother and I are taking a river cruise together! Next fall, a cruise down the Danube from Budapest to Nuremberg. Knowing her and knowing me (uh huh), it will NOT be like a Beckett play.
The final play was *Rockaby*. This is another conversation between a mother and daughter, done by a single actor. Both plays made me think of Norman Bates and his mother! Especially this one, with the rocking chair. Spooky. This was even more haunting than *Footfalls* because the bulk of the play has the mother speaking, and Dwan, who is under forty, makes more logical sense as the daughter. The text is repetitive - - Karen knows the play much better than I do, and said it was suspenseful to hear how the patterns would change, how things would be added or altered. Maybe I’ll pick up on that if I see it again someday.