Stage editors Costanza Bertoni and Frank Lawton give their takes on this Beckett trilogy. Were they at the same play?
Imagine yourself in a photography dark room. Red lighting off, darkness, but your eyes faintly adjust to the contours of the developing image before you, rippling in the liquid. The Royal Court’s production of Beckett’s Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby is a similar vanishing and developing of the senses. Immersed in blackness for the duration of the play, with selective spotlighting: a mouth, feet and a dimly illuminated profile, it is a performance that brings Beckett’s Absurdist theatre off the stage and into a personal darkroom: your mind.
This deeply intimate sensation is induced both by the technical elements and running order of the performance. Amongst the myriads of Beckett’s one-man plays, the choice of this trio is one that outlines the productions’ focus on two forms of perception: time and the senses.
The former is explored by the pace of the plays showing a young woman from youth to old age: introduced with a record breaking nine minute sprint of Not I, then elongated by the pacing to and fro of Footfalls and finally, the hypnotic rocking of Rockaby whose mantra ‘Time she stopped’ eventually seeps into the lulled senses of the audience.
The latter, these senses, are observed through the interplay of sound and lighting: the rapid shrieking of Not I meets the amalgamation of voices in Footfalls, to end with the glimmering silhouette of the woman in the Rockaby rocking chair. But this exploration does not limit itself to the stage. In the black intermissions between the plays the audience becomes the protagonist, when amidst claps, coughs and creaking you begin to wonder what exactly you perceive the performance to be.
Lisa Dwan’s role through this hypnotic life journey is impressive and admirable. The range of voice tones, emotions and speed required is one that would leave most actors dumbfounded. It is the insidious nature of her vocal talent that makes this performance so unique and personal.
Although at times I found myself drifting out of consciousness, upon reflection I can only consider this as a positive effect; something not caused by boredom but contemplation. Allowing me to sit and absorb not from my seat, but my own sensory darkroom.
fire; a shamanic wind weaving through the theatre, summoning the nearly-dead to the stage; an unrelenting darkness to sicken and slowly sharpen the senses. There is no doubt that the highlights of this one-woman Royal Court production sear deep into the mind.
It is an ambitious undertaking to stage three plays, written independently of one another over the space of almost a decade, back-to-back during one intense hour. While the director has no obligation to yoke the plays together to form one merged yet coherent narrative, there is the difficulty of justifying why these three plays in particular are placed side by side. To some extent the plays respond themselves in their combined thematic arc, bending from the spluttering, stuttering, expulsive birthing of speech that lights the tinder box for Not I’s rampaging verbal assault, to the somnambulant silences and slow death of Rockaby. The arc is made smoother by director Walter Asmus’ deft handling of the liminal spaces between the plays, moulding one’s end into another’s beginning, such as when the gibberish which ends Not I is carried over into Footfall’s opening line: ‘mother’ sounding out simply as an unintelligible deep note. A similar ploy is used between Footfalls and Rockaby, where the unsettling wind which calls Footfalls into life also cedes it to darkness, before conjuring Rockaby as its final trick.
However, there are difficulties with viewing and reviewing such an experiment which aren’t so easily resolvable. For one thing there is the uneven rendering of humour in these works. While Not I drew the laughs in the places you’d hope for and expect, the rich comic seam which often runs through even the bleakest moments of Beckett’s best work is submerged in Footfalls and Rockaby. This is partly the fault of Beckett’s script and partly the performances of it. Rockaby reads like a parody of Beckett’s darkest scenes, and whether this is intentional or otherwise on Beckett’s part (one senses the former…), the sincerity and oppressive seriousness of the delivery gives this potential vein of humour little room to breathe.
That said, Lisa Dwan’s performance is mostly excellent, whether as the ghostly Miss Havisham figure of Footfalls or the breathtaking fire mouth of Not I, the staging of which even manages to be more Spartan than Beckett’s original directions would have: a spot-lit human mouth hovers in the otherwise total blackness, tunnelling the vision while your ears tune to the sonic sprint, perfectly enunciated. Overall this is an unnerving piece of theatre, albeit one which closes on a slightly disappointing note with Rockaby, in part condemned by the production’s own exceptional five star standard established in Not I, which alone makes it worth your while.
Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby is sold out at The Royal Court, but is showing at the Duchess Theatre from 3rd February.