The last time I was presented with a flickering eye projection before a show was about to begin, I was surrounded by nearly 150,000 people in a muddy field about to watch Adele at Glastonbury, however, a quick glance around the more glamorous Old Vic told me that this wasn’t going to be quite the same experience. A one woman show on such a difficult theme is a curious choice by Artistic Director Matthew Warchus, one that he acknowledges isn’t “standard Old Vic programming” – but in a season that will go on to see a female Lear (Glenda Jackson) and has already hosted a full blown all-singing, all-dancing musical perhaps experimental is another box to try and tick.
No’s Knife is Lisa Dwan’s own interpretation of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing – a work originally written as 13 separate prose pieces in the early 1950s in French and never intended to be performed on stage. Profoundly personal or astutely political, they can be interpreted in a number of ways and reveal some of Beckett’s insightful (and inherently confusing) musings on the human condition. Presented in four sections, we see Dwan in a variety of vast and barren landscapes – the first she is suspended from a rock face (reminiscent of Beckett’s Happy Days), the optical illusion making her seem wedged into a small crevice; the third sees her swing from a suspended cage-like structure; while in the second and fourth she roams the ground, strewn with boulders and surface water, in a muddied brown slip and blackened, bloody legs. Where are we – purgatory, hell, or an indistinct post-apocalyptic no man’s land? We do not know.
Dwan’s performance is at once enthralling and exhausting. She adeptly moves between a number of different characters, all in many ways equally indistinct but with various accents and tones – young, old, male, female; they all exist both separately and together. Dwan’s voice has incredible vocal texture and depth – her intonation is almost lyrical and her delivery, unfaltering. However the complex density of Beckett’s writing meant that vast swathes of text eluded me and the desire to look for a linear narrative is fruitless. Are we experiencing a narrative between multiple characters or the internal monologue of a schizophrenic breakdown? Hard to say.
Profound quotes abound in a play that is 70 minutes of pure monologue – a conversation between her and us, internally or beyond the grave with the purveyor of nothingness, Beckett himself – your guess is as good as mine: ‘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?’
No’s Knife at the Old Vic until Saturday 15th October 2016. Running time 70 minutes with no interval. Production images by Manuel Harlan. For more information and tickets please visit the website.