Lisa Dwan - catching ‘the music’ of Beckett

GALWAY THEATRE audiences are in for a real treat next week - amid the many fine treats already served up by Galway International Arts Festival - when the Royal Court Theatre come to An Taibhdhearc with Irish actress Lisa Dwan’s acclaimed trilogy of Beckett plays Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby.

The shows marks a theatrical homecoming for Dwan as her first acting role was with Galway Youth Theatre, in As You Like It, and her first professional theatre job was as a choreographer with An Taibhdhearc.

“It’s great to be bringing this show right back to where I started,” she enthuses ahead of her visit, “I’m like a child at the moment, I can’t wait to perform there.”

Not I is an intense monologue, set in a pitch-black space lit by a single beam of light. A disembodied female mouth floats eight feet above the stage and delivers a breakneck stream of consciousness. Footfalls features the distant voice of ‘Mother’ and May who paces back and forth on a bare strip of floor. Rockaby explores loneliness and features a prematurely old woman dressed in an evening gown, sitting on a wooden rocking chair that appears to rock of its own accord.

Not I

Dwan has been performing Beckett since 2005 when she first did Not I, before being directed by Billie Whitelaw in a 2009 revival. She revisited Not I again in 2013, while in January she returned to the Royal Court to reprise it alongside Footfalls and Rockaby. All three were directed by Beckett’s long-time collaborator, Walter Asmus. I ask her had she been a fan of Beckett’s work before getting to perform it.

“I was in Dublin when the Beckett films were being made, in 2000,” Lisa tells me. “That was a great project to be part of and witness, and it informed me a lot about the plays and the Beckett style, so I had a sense of him - but I’ll never forget being in a car one day with actor Stephen Brennan and he was describing Not I, and what it’s like onstage. Film is great but nothing can replicate the live experience of watching this mouth appearing to oscillate and move across the stage even though the actor is completely still.

“Stephen painted that image for me and I never forgot it then years later in London I got sent the script by director Natalie Abrahami. When I opened it I saw this sheer poetry and in between the poetry and the fragmented narrative I heard home, I saw the nuns, I heard the parochial, acerbic side, I heard the commentaries and whispers, the gossip, the pain. Home.”

Not I is a hugely physically demanding role with Dwan having her face and neck covered in thick, jet-black, make up then being blindfolded, hooded, and having her arms and head strapped into board restraints that leave only her mouth visible. And, to cap it all, comes the high-speed monologue.

“It never gets any easier,” she says. “It’s almost harder. The more complacent you get the more the piece runs away with you. One of the hardest things you have to battle is your own internal ‘not I’. At any moment I could slip off that wire and there is no safety net.”

Billie Whitelaw’s coaching

Dwan tells me about working with the great Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw, who performed the British premiere of Not I in 1973 with personal coaching from Beckett.

“When I performed it in 2005 I didn’t want to meet Billie,” Dwan says. “If I had I would only have been trying to emulate her performance. I had to find my own way into it first. Once I had completed it, I was able to meet her.

“She rang me up out of the blue one day and said ‘Can you come along to the house? I want to give you Sam’s notes.’ I came round expecting her to show me a rehearsal script or notebooks. She said ‘Sit down, begin’ and I began the piece and she started conducting me across the kitchen table. I later discovered that was exactly what Beckett did with her at her kitchen table.”

Dwan expands on what she took from Whitelaw’s conducting.

“It had a tremendous impact,” she says, “but they were notes I could only have taken on once I had found my own way. I was worried I was going quite fast and she kept telling me that Beckett wanted it spoken at the speed of thought. He kept saying to her you can’t go fast enough. It’s supposed to play on the nerves of the audience not the intellect - it needs to bypass the intellect. I was also putting a slightly artificial monotone on it and Billie lifted the lid on all of that. She said ‘It’s not to say Sam didn’t want expression or emotion, he did want all of it, he wanted the real stuff’. She helped me open that up and let my instinct fly.

She didn’t, what I think is so amazing, try and enforce her performance or her world-view. She just insisted that I use my own landscape and my own feeling and she gave me so much permission in that regard. I think she was better than many directors because she was really able to tap into something deeply personal that only someone who has done the piece would understand.”

Footfalls and Rockaby

What of the two other pieces in the programme, Footfalls and Rockaby?

“They are both so different,” Dwan observes. “Footfalls is normally played with two actors and we had to get special permission from the Beckett estate for me to do both voices - mother’s voice offstage and May onstage. It really works, it makes the piece deeply personal and inside one’s head, it keeps the piece in the republic of the mind which is what we wanted.

“I kind of thought ‘Ah there are only a couple of lines and she paces up and down, I’ve done all the groundwork of recording with this voice, it’ll be fine’. But Footfalls is so difficult, it’s absolutely emotionally draining and so challenging. Nothing gets as hard as Not I but Footfalls is so exhausting; at the end of it every night I am dripping wet. It’s very emotionally taxing and a little death happens up on stage every night.

“Rockaby is crucifyingly sad and frighteningly lonely, you’re rocking away in the abyss, it’s poetry and extremely beautiful. From an acting point of view it’s a little bit easier, I can’t wait to get in that chair every night,” Lisa says with a laugh. “Despite the emotional state I have to go into.

“When I was rehearsing it with Walter he wouldn’t let me get past the first stanza, I had to keep going back and going back and then finally he let me go and like a glider I caught this invisible current, Beckett’s music, and that music carried me right through to the end of the piece. I remember we were rehearsing in Berlin and when I looked up at the end Walter was crying.”

Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby are at An Taibhdhearc from Tuesday July 22 to Saturday 26 at 9pm nightly, with a matinee performance on Saturday 26 at 3pm. There is also a post-show talk with Lisa after the Wednesday 23 show. For tickets see


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