Interview: actress Lisa Dwan on performing Samuel Beckett monologue 'Not I'
Theatre-goers will see actress Lisa Dwan pay more than lip service to Samuel Beckett monologue at the Hong Kong Arts Festival
The Samuel Beckett monologue Not I, which comes to the Hong Kong Arts Festival later this month, is probably the most difficult monologue in the English language.
It's not just that to perform the 1972 play you have to be strapped to a harness, blindfolded, unable to hear, with your grease-blackened face placed against a hole in a wooden board so that, sitting in the total darkness, the audience sees only your red mouth, lit by a single spotlight, seemingly suspended 2.5 metres above the stage.
It's because the script comprises short phrases that are not linked by narrative or logic. And they must be said as quickly - more quickly perhaps - than thought itself. "When I come out of that performance I am very disorientated," says Irish actress Lisa Dwan, who first performed the piece in 2005, and then in 2009, and now once more for the tour to Hong Kong, Paris and Australia, along with two other strange Beckett shorts, Footfalls (1975) and Rockaby (1980).
"It never gets easier. I'm usually breathless, dripping with sweat. Sometimes I've cut my ear on the head harness and I'm bleeding. I feel muscles in my legs and buttocks that I didn't know were there because my whole body is so rigid trying to push the sound out," Dwan says.
"When people see me from the back, from backstage, they can't get over how physical it is and they understand why it's necessary that I'm strapped against the board because my whole body is vibrating … in order to try to push that force out. When my stage manager releases me, I'm usually gasping for water and breath. It's like running a marathon," she says.
Dwan has also vividly described the performance as being like driving down a motorway the wrong way without a handbrake.
"It's terrifying and it never gets easier, never. In fact, weirdly, it gets harder because the more your brain gets complacent the more your internal 'Not I' appears. And when you hear your internal 'Not I', you really recognise that Beckett is a complete and utter genius, who hit thought on the nail … When I first read it, I thought it was a transcript of how my own mind works."
So, even while she's performing, her tirade of critics and voices are muttering in her head. "Did you turn off your phone? Did you turn off the TV? What perfume do you smell? Can you breathe? When are you going to swallow? And this is happening at the same speed that you're trying to get the monologue out," she says.
For the audience this piece is also quite extraordinary. The lights are switched off. Not just the ordinary lights but all the lights including the exit signs. As you sit in the darkness it becomes almost velvety.
And when the mouth - or Mouth as the character is named - is illuminated and begins to talk quickly and unceasingly, the audience has to let go of the attempt to make sense of it, the tiny mouth somehow seeming to grow until it takes over the whole theatre.
"The dark can produce panic attacks. People often rush out, and even though I can't hear or see I know if there's a disturbance in the audience; I can smell it."
The piece was originally written for English actress Billie Whitelaw, who was in many ways Beckett's muse, and premiered several of his plays, including Happy Days for which she was buried up to her waist in sand.
Whitelaw, who died last December at 82, had a successful career in TV soaps, theatre and film, but it's for Beckett's plays that she is mostly remembered. And when Dwan first performed Not I, Rockaby and Footfalls in 2005, Whitelaw got in touch.
"Billie Whitelaw was integrity personified. She had a real force about her, a real weight. She didn't suffer fools. She spoke her mind," Dwan says. "She was very direct, she was very northern. She was anti-intellectual, but she was razor sharp and she was extremely genuine and very, very generous. I'm grateful for the time she spent with me."
Whitelaw had never met anyone who'd played Not I and she became fascinated; the first time they spoke for hours about the experience, and a year after that, she called Dwan out of the blue: she said she had to give her Beckett's notes and could she please come round?
"I fully expected her to pull out an old manuscript and show me what he'd written down or what she'd taken down, but then she asked me to sit down at her kitchen table and she began [to talk]."
When Dwan was asked to reprise the role in 2009 in what turned out to be a sell-out tour around Britain, she and Whitelaw stepped up their sessions. "I'd been trying to adhere to some of the notes that had been passed on to me as what Beckett didn't want … she rubbished a lot of that and she said it's not as if he didn't want expression, he did, he wanted an ocean of it. He just didn't want this to be an act of craft or sentimentality," Dwan says.
"She showed me how Beckett was really at war with sentimentality and helped me to bring in my own landscape and tough experiences, and that freed me up totally and the piece became extremely personal. As a result, it lifted off the page, lifted into another sphere."
Not that Whitelaw had clear-cut guidance herself. When he saw rehearsals for the play in 1971, Beckett was specific about what she needed to change: would she reduce the three dots "…" between each phrase to [two dots]?
Before each show starts, Dwan lies down in her room and listens to a recorded meditation ("I hadn't done meditation for the 2005 shows, and when I learned just after that, it changed the piece: it helped me make it faster, among other things").
She then does deep breathing to counterbalance the short breaths and hyperventilation that the performance requires, "so I need to make sure that all my brain cells are properly oxygenated".
The process of being the motor for Mouth is extraordinary: Dwan knows of nothing like this in any other role. "I feel like a travelling subconscious. I feel like a continent, a cacophony of voices; not just one voice but layers of thought, of things overheard, of streams of consciousness, of judgment, of scorn, of gossip, of streaks of humour. Of asides.
"It's as if someone flew over Ireland and took a nine-and-a-half-minute sample of it. And this is it."
Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby , Feb 25-28, 8.15pm, Mar 1, 5pm, Drama Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, HK$220-HK$320. Inquiries: 2824 2430