Performing miracles: A salute to Lisa Dwan

“ Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me? Answer simply, someone answer simply.”

Lisa Dwan is the best interpreter of Beckett working today.

The Old Vic is currently playing host to ‘No’s Knife’, Lisa Dwan’s adaptation of prose pieces from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Texts for Nothing’. A lot has been made of Dwan’s solo performance: her vocal range, the muscularity of her characterisation, and the super-human stamina required to nail the performance night after night.

All of these observations hold true, and all accolades deserved. But there’s something else. Something that confirms that Lisa Dawn isn’t just an actor at the top of her game (and she is an actor at the top of her game), but that she is also one of the most adroit scholars of Foxrock’s favourite son.

While other actors perform Beckett’s characters, Lisa Dwan performs Beckett’s grammar. His syntax. His tantalising, poetic, and yet frustrating impenetrability.

What do I mean by this? When Beckett dabbled with the surreal, it wasn’t the kind that pushes a reader away from the page. Or, in theatrical terms, away from the stage. He wasn’t like Gertrude Stein, whose Hermetic poetry broke the mould by brazenly not ‘making sense’ (in the traditional fashion) at all: Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.

Beckett’s is not on a crusade to make some kind of meta-literary point by demonstrating how to make-or-break linguistic styles; his prose feels like it's playing by the rules, and tantalises a reader in thinking that he’s making sense, even when he isn’t.

A reader can walk away from a section of Beckett’s ‘Texts for Nothing’ convinced that the narrative was telling them something, and yet have no idea what that might be. Take this for instance: It’s the same old stranger as ever, for whom alone accusative I exist, in the pit of my inexistence, of his, of ours, there’s a simple answer.

The order of the clauses and the ‘shape’ of the sentence tempts you into believing that you know things: you know who, why, where, how, and when. But who is the same old stranger? How can anyone exist ‘for’ another? And if they can do so, how can they do so ‘accusatively’? And if this character does indeed ‘exist’, then how can they do so in a pit of their own ‘inexistence’? Of one thing we can be sure: is that there is not, as Beckett’s narrator suggests, ‘a simple answer’.

(Of course, I have taken one sentence from many more for the explanation above. Please re-run the test here. I am sure that the part will prove to be representative of the whole)

Lisa Dwan’s performance not only delivers, but recreates Beckett’s deceptive polyphonic tangle. Even though Dwan is alone on stage, often the ‘character’ of the monologue multiplies, becoming two voices, or perhaps more. With growls, pitch-changes, screeches, bellows and — of course and moreover — exquisitely considered characterisation, the actor’s vocal dexterity enacts the abrupt heterogeneity of the disembodied voices, as they talk to, undercut, ignore, and wilfully contradict each other.

The staging and directorial choices (made by Dwan, Joe Murphy and the production’s creative team) support this too. In each of the four different settings, liminality pervades. This is most marked when Dwan is suspended in the middle of crevasse, like an embryo born in a fault-line; or when she is caged tweety-pie-like, several feet above the stage. There is always the sense that the character is between places, occupying a space that is neither here nor there. However this isn’t to say that the settings represent any kind of inconsequentialness or ambiguity that being ‘in between places’ could suggest: the staging is undergirded by a series of strong metaphors, that convey that the character is deliberately in a space that is neither here nor there, and that is where she is supposed to be. In the way that Beckett’s words are very deliberately poised on a threshold of meaning, the settings are all very deliberately poised on the threshold of somewhere.

But I don’t want to just talk about how conceptually spot-on Dwan’s performance is; her performance is — as performances go — wonderful in theatrical terms.

When confronted with Beckett’s more avant-garde work, it is easy to get overly concerned with metaphor, symbolism and the like. I saw a volley of Becketts at the Barbican last summer — Act 1 and 2 Without Words, and All That Fall — and although I enjoyed each one, they all played like intellectual and semi-academic tributes to Beckett. And, even though it holds some water to argue that this is perfectly fine, Lisa Dwan’s No’s Knife demonstrates that you can achieve the difficult balance of scholarly accuracy and theatrical éclat. To give a deserved hat tip: as did Trevor Nunn’s 2012 production of All That Fall.

So Lisa Dwan has done it again. I was lucky enough to see Lisa Dwan’s performance of Not I in 2013; and again as part of a triple bill alongside Footfalls and Rockaby in 2014.

In some ways, what Dwan has achieved with No’s Knife is more impressive than Not I. This is not because Lisa Dwan is either better-or-worse as an actor or a director, but because Not I has a high-profile theatrical history. Actors compete over generations to rifle through the monologue in the quickest possible time — or, if they’re not consciously competing, they are at least compared by onlookers like silly old me. With No’s Knife, Lisa Dwan ploughed a new furrow. You could argue that she is, therefore, not under the weight of expectation that comes with continuing a lineage; but I would suggest that this is outweighed by the pressure of interpreting and performing personally curated swathes of Beckett, that are being put on stage in this manner for the first time.

Anyway, I protest too much. Other opinions are available, of course, but I shall end as I began: Lisa Dwan is the best interpreter of Beckett working today.

Please go and see the performance — you can do so until Saturday 15th.

“Yes, there are moments, like this moment, when I seem almost restored to the feasible. Then it goes, all goes, and I’m far again, with a far story again, I wait for me afar for my story to begin, to end, and again this voice cannot be mine. That’s where I’d go, if I could go, that’s who I’d be, if I could be.”

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.