PREVIEW: Tied to a bannister was the best way to rehearse
16:59 15 August 2014
Three rarely-performed Samuel Becket plays: Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby will be at Cambridge Arts Theatre from Tuesday, September 9 to Saturday, September 13, as part of a world tour.
The actress has to be suspended high above the stage. The whole auditorium is dark, even the emergency lights in the theatre are turned off.
The actress is strapped up so that she cannot move anything except her mouth. And all the audience sees is a big, red glowing mouth moving faster than you have ever seen a mouth move.
So what did Irish actress Lisa Dwan do to rehearse at home? “I tied myself to the banisters.”
She says: “I am tied to one spot but I feel like I am flying about the auditorium. I am blindfolded with a cowl over my face, I can’t move, see or hear, I am talking into the blackness suspended eight foot above the stage.”
Not I is a monologue, a torrent of unfinished phrases from a tormented woman recalling the bitterness of her life. Beckett’s instructions were: “You can’t do it fast enough and don’t act.”
Dwan was coached for the plays by Billie Whitelaw, who played all three plays in the 1970s. Beckett wrote for Whitelaw and directed her.
She said: “When I first came to it, I thought I don’t hear one voice, I hear several voices. It’s like a bag of broken thoughts. It’s a landscape. I don’t feel like a person, I feel like a country or a even a continent. It is deeply personal, it’s me. Every single phrase had a personal connection, the parochial sayings, the asides, the acerbic tone, I thought of the nuns, where I grew up in Ireland, the Christian piety, the self-loathing, the interruptions and the internal panic.”
Why did Beckett say don’t act?
“He meant don’t use actor’s tricks, he wants emotion from deep down, not an actor affecting feeling.”
In the second play, Footfalls, a young woman paces up and down in a tattered ballgown outside her dying mother’s room. Dwan plays both parts. We see and hear the girl but we only hear the mother’s voice. The old lady laments the lost life of her daughter. “She has not been out since girlhood, not out since girlhood.”
The mother is 90, the daughter is 40. The mother laments the girl’s anxiety: “Will you never have done, never have done, revolving it all?”
The third play, Rockaby, is a poem really, a beautiful description of an old woman dying as she sits in her rocking chair at her window, with the chorus in the rhythm of the rocking: “till in the end, the day came, in the end came, close of a long day.”
These short plays, only 55 minutes, all three together, are little pictures of life. Little paintings of emotion. They are about whatever they mean to you. However, this production is a masterclass in what theatre means. Dwan does not create these characters, they are alive and they just step into her. She gives us a sublime performance only seen, as Becket might have said, once in a long lifetime.
INFORMATION: Shows, 7.45pm with Saturday matinee 2.30pm. Post show talk, Wednesday, September 10. Tickets: £15, £20, £25. 01223 503333 or www.cambridgeartstheatre.com.