01 May 2016

Beckett Trilogy: 'Not I', 'Footfalls,' 'Rockaby'

Back in October 2015, I walked down to the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University, just south of Washington Square, to meet my friend Diana for a performance of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot (see my posted report on 31 October 2015).  This season’s offerings at the Skirball also included the Beckett Trilogy, three short plays by the Irish playwright, all one-woman performances featuring acclaimed Irish actress Lisa Dwan, directed by Walter Asmus, Beckett’s long time friend and collaborator.  I tried to persuade Diana to join me for that presentation, which Dwan had been performing for some time both at home and around the world.  (It was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014, for example.)  Diana wasn’t amenable to an evening of one-person plays, even by Samuel Beckett, so I determined to go on my own.  For one reason, I’d never seen these three plays: Not I (1972), Footfalls (1975), and Rockaby (1980).  For another, probably more significant: I think Beckett is a theatrical genius (he won the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature, a pretty good bona fides of his status); I’ve acknowledged my esteem for the Irish dramatist and writer in several ROT posts (see “History of Waiting For Godot,” 30 March 2009; “Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 1 April 2009; “More Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 3 April 2009; “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” 17 April 2009).  So, on Saturday evening, 16 April, I walked down to the Skirball once again to catch the 55-minute Lisa Dwan Production.  Dwan, who’s touring the Beckett Trilogy and will be retiring Not I after these shows, was only scheduled to be in New York from 13-17 April—six performances only.  It was also reportedly Dwan’s final appearance for this tour, which has included stops in Cambridge, England; Belfast; Perth, Australia; Paris; Hong Kong; and Toronto, before hitting the U.S., where it’s played in Boston and L.A. before ending in New York City.

Lisa Dwan, 38, is from Coosan, Athlone, County Westmeath, Ireland.  She first wanted to be a ballerina and was chosen to dance with Rudolf Nureyev in the Ballet San Jose’s production of Coppélia in Dublin when she was 12.  After winning a scholarship to the Dorothy Stevens School of Ballet in Leeds at 14, Dwan left school.  (She had to leave ballet when she tore a cartilage in her knee.)  Her first movie role was Agnes in a 1997 TV adaptation of Oliver Twist which co-starred Elijah Wood (Artful Dodger) and Richard Dreyfuss (Fagin).  Dwan’s first regular television role was as Princess Deirdre, the Mystic Knight of Wind, on The Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog (FOX, 1998-99).  She played the role of Orla in eight episodes of RTÉ’s (Irish national radio and TV) The Big Bow Wow in 2004, the role of Zoe Burke in 21 episodes of the Irish soap opera Fair City from 2006 to 2007, and the role of Angel Islington on ITV’s Rock Rivals (2008) in the U.K.  In 2009 she starred opposite Martin Sheen as Marika in Bhopal: Prayer for Rain.  The actress appeared on Broadway in December 2015 when she recited a previously-unpublished Seamus Heaney poem about Brian Friel, who’d died a few months earlier, at a tribute to the Irish playwright at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.  Dwan began performing Samuel Beckett’s Not I at London’s Battersea Arts Centre in 2005, and was interviewed with Billie Whitelaw as part of the Beckett celebrations on BBC Radio 3 in 2006.  She performed the piece again in 2009 in the Southbank Centre in London and at Reading University in 2013.  In 2014, the two other pieces in the Beckett Trilogy joined Not I (it was director Walter Asmus who suggested that these plays could be performed together, though Beckett never intended them to be) and Dwan performed the program at London’s Royal Court Theatre; it began the world tour that brought it to BAM with performances at the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End.

Walter Asmus was born in 1941 in Lübeck, Germany.  He studied German and English literature, philosophy, and theater sciences in Hamburg, Vienna, and Freiburg and spent a year in London in the late ’60s.  After two years as co-director of Theater in der Tonne (Reutlingen, Germany), he worked as assistant director/dramaturg and director at the Schiller Theater in Berlin where in 1974 he met Samuel Beckett and served as his assistant for the author’s renowned production of Waiting for Godot in 1975.  Asmus worked with Beckett in both theater and television, on pieces including That TimeFootfalls, Play, Come and Go, Waiting for Godot, . . . but the clouds . . ., Ghost Trio, Eh Joe, and What Where, until the author’s death in 1989.  Asmus has directed all of Beckett’s plays internationally; his 1991 Gate Theatre (Dublin) production of Godot, regarded by reviewers and academics alike as “definitive,” was revived several times until 2008, touring to Chicago, Seville, Toronto, Melbourne, London, New York (Lincoln Center Festival), Beijing, and Shanghai.  There were U.S. tours in 1998 and 2006 and the production closed in 2008 after an all-Ireland tour of one-night stands in 32 counties.  Asmus was co-director of the international festival, Beckett in Berlin 2000.

(For a brief bio of Beckett, see my report on Godot, referenced above, and a profile of the Skirball Center is in my report on Not by Bread Alone, 12 February 2013.)

During the performance of the Beckett Trilogy at the Skirball, all the lights in the auditorium were switched off, including the “Exit” lights.  The show was 55 minutes in virtually complete darkness.  (There were stage lighting effects, as you’ll learn.)  There were three-minute breaks between the playlets during which the main drape closed—to allow the stage crew to change set pieces under work lights without illuminating the auditorium—but the house remained in total blackout.  (To avoid potential panic or anxiety—it reportedly has happened—the audience was informed of this in advance, along with hearing an assurance that the theater staff was in complete control of the lighting system and in an emergency, the lights would be turned back on immediately.  We were also admonished not to leave our seats during the performance or the pauses.  The announcement was delivered solemnly, without a hint of irony or humor to be sure, I suppose, that no one took it for a joke.)

(While some of the characters in these plays have names or designations in the published texts, the Beckett Trilogy program didn’t list any.  In Not I, Dwan’s character is called Mouth, and in Footfalls, she’s called May, the name of Beckett’s mother; in Rockaby, she’s designated in the text only as W.)

Not I, written in 1972, is a short dramatic monologue (translated into French as Pas moi).  It premièred at the Samuel Beckett Festival by the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York on 22 November 1972.  The original production was directed by Alan Schneider (a leading director of Beckett’s plays, including the U.S. première of Godot in 1956) with Jessica Tandy and Henderson Forsythe.  (The piece was originally conceived for two performers, the Mouth and the Auditor; Beckett later removed the second figure, who may be of either gender but has no lines, from his own productions of the play, though he didn’t eliminate the Auditor from the published text.  Asmus and Dwan’s staging omitted this presence.)  In January 1973, Beckett himself directed Billie Whitelaw, one of the foremost interpreters of his works for 25 years, at the Royal Court Theatre.  (The BBC aired a film version of Not I with Whitelaw in February 1973, but only her mouth appears on the screen.)  Dwan, coached by the late Whitelaw (who died in 2014) from Beckett’s own notes from 1973, first performed Not I at London’s Battersea Arts Centre in 2005 and then in July 2009 in the Southbank Centre, also in London.  The Skirball performance took about 10 minutes—Beckett’s instructions are to do the pay as fast as the actor can—at “the speed of thought”—and some reports indicate that Dwan has done it in less time.  Tandy took 22 minutes to perform Not I, and Beckett declared that she ruined his play.  Whitelaw’s performance in ’73 lasted 14 minutes and was considered a triumph.  (The ’73 film runs 13 minutes.)

In Not I, a woman, reduced to nothing but her mouth (in London’s Independent, Paul Taylor quipped, “imagine the Cheshire Cat’s grin as reinvented by Munch”), seeks consolation in a disjointed, fragmented speech streamed at a breakneck pace.  In the Lisa Dwan Production, the actress’s mouth was lit by a pinpoint spot while everything else was immersed in total darkness.  (The masterful lighting design for the program was by James Farncombe.)  Dwan was suspended with her mouth exactly eight feet above center stage (Beckett wrote explicit instructions).  I discovered later that to enhance the effect of the disembodied mouth, Dwan wore black face makeup except around her lips.  She also wore an “opaque tight shroud” that blinded her as well.  Dwan’s mouth seemed to bob up and down slightly as she released her stream-of-consciousness soliloquy.  The actress, though, was bound to a wooden plank with her face through an oval hole so she couldn’t move her mouth out of the light.

The words are jumbled and appear haphazard, though pieces of a story start to come together.  The woman tells the story in third person, as if it were about someone else, but this is the speaker’s attempt to distance herself from her memories.  The woman’s story is horrendous, though there are moments of absurd humor here and there.  Having spent most of her solitary, forlorn life abused and neglected, she became mute.  Now she finds herself logorrheic.  The details of the woman’s story aren’t provided and the third person she keeps using keeps her at a remove from the specifics.  We’re kept distanced as well, not only by the speech’s structure but by it’s pace, not to mention that we’re watching only a mouth talking, not even a talking head.  (If you’re sitting any distance from the stage, you don’t even really get that much visual stimulus: all I could really see was a dot of light that I knew before I sat down was a woman’s mouth.)  The words, however, aren’t meant to be understood rationally: it’s almost pure emotion that Beckett, through Dwan, is engaging and each of us gets out of the performance what’s right for us at that moment. 

I can certainly understand why Dwan would want to retire Not I from her repertoire after performing it for over a decade.  Physically and emotionally, she’s acknowledged, I takes a toll.  Dwan recounted that Billie Whitelaw had once proclaimed, “I will not play that role again; I cannot; if I do then I shall go mad.”  But, of course, Dwan wasn’t done yet: she was only one-third through the evening.  By her own account: “I rip off the head harness, run as fast as I can round to the dressing box, and start ripping off the black make-up while somebody is sticking a wig on me, trying to squeeze me into a dress—that’s pretty frenetic, and doing that in the half-light. . . .”  The audience, of course, sat in the dark while Dwan was kitted out for the next playlet; then she was back out on stage for Footfalls.                                              
Footfalls was also written in English (its French version is entitled Pas, which means ‘footsteps’ or ‘paces’), in 1975, and was first performed on 20 May 1976 at London’s Royal Court Theatre as part of the Samuel Beckett Festival, directed by the playwright with Whitelaw, for whom the piece had been written, and Rose Hill as the voice of the mother.  (At the Skirball, the recorded voice of the mother was uncredited; I thought it might have been Dwan’s own voice, and according to the Guardian, it was.)  The play reveals a bruised soul, drained of life, pacing relentlessly back and forth outside her dying mother’s bedroom.  Or is the unseen mother merely a creature of the woman’s mind?  Only Dwan is lit—in an eerie blue light—while the rest of the stage is bathed in complete darkness.  I don’t know how Farncombe accomplished this effect because it really seemed as if Dwan’s tattered dress glowed, giving off the light rather than some outside source focusing the cold light on her.  (Alex Eales was listed as the designer, presumably of both set, what there is of it, and costumes; the wardrobe supervisor and wig stylist was Naomi Miyoko Raddatz.)  The patch of bare, wooden floor up and down which Dwan walked showed only the slightest light spillage; only Dwan seemed to be illuminated (and I can’t tell you how that’s even possible). 

The duologue—it’s hardly a conversation—is divided into parts, separated by the ringing of a bell.  The bell changes tone with each section, getting almost imperceptibly softer (though I only realized this after the second or third section because the difference was so slight I wasn’t sure it was intentional).  The illumination also changed—something else I didn’t see until the later sections—becoming darker each time.  Dwan’s pacing was very regular (I later read that Beckett instructed that it should be “metronomic” and, depending on the actor’s stride, the same number of steps for each cross), so the movement seemed mechanical—or the way a prisoner in a cell might pace off the length and width of his confinement—obsessively.  Dwan paused a few seconds each time the bell rang and then continued pacing.  At the end, the bell rang and the lights faded on an empty patch of floor—Dwan wasn’t there—and went very dim.

Every footstep was audible; I thought there might have been mics at floor level to amplify Dwan’s steps, but I’ve read that when Whitelaw did the play under Beckett’s direction, the actress wore sandpaper on the bottom of her slippers to make her steps discernible.  I can’t confirm that Dwan did the same thing, but I suspect she and Asmus followed Beckett’s practice.  The overall image was ghostly, spectral. 

The text is nearly without a plot at all, though we learn tidbits of a lonely life.  We learn, for instance, that the mother is 90, though she thinks she’s in her “40’s”; we also learn that Dwan’s character started pacing as a girl, after something the nature of which is never revealed happened, and has never stopped—nor does she ever go outside in daylight.  We learn about the daughter’s nocturnal visits to the nearby church, where she paces along the “arms” of the cruciform sanctuary (transept).  The daughter asks her mother if she needs her daughter to give her another injection, to reposition her again, or to bring her the bedpan.  We don’t see the daughter doing any of these duties: Dwan only paces up and down the strip of floor.  The mother also comments on her daughter’s pacing, counting the steps, though technically it’s impossible for her to see her daughter outside her door.  The story we hear is told in a third-person narrative.  We could get the impression that the daughter and the mother’s voices are the same person (especially if the same actress plays both parts), and whether any of it’s real or imagined is uncertain; indeed, whether the pacing woman is real or imaginary is uncertain as well. 

Rockaby, too, was written in English (translated into French as Berceuse, which means both ‘rocking chair’ and ‘lullaby’) in 1980, commissioned by Daniel Labeille, then a professor of theater arts at Cayuga Community College, State University of New York, for the SUNY-wide Programs in the Arts, for a festival and symposium in commemoration of Beckett’s 75th birthday.  The play premiered on 8 April 1981 at SUNY-Buffalo with Alan Schneider directing Billie Whitelaw.  (A 1983 documentary film, Rockaby, by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus recorded the rehearsal and the first performance of that staging.)  That production went on to be performed at the Annex (now the Ellen Stewart Theatre) at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York’s East Village on 13-15 April 1981 and, in December 1982, in the Cottesloe at the Royal National Theatre in London. In Rockaby, an old woman (the script apparently describes her as “prematurely aged,” though I’m not sure how we’re to know that) slowly withdraws from the world as she rocks herself to eternal sleep in her dead mother’s wooden rocking chair.  Once again, Dwan’s in pitch blackness in a phosphorescing dress—this time, an elegant Victorian-style gown.  (In the eerie lighting, it’s hard to discern this, but photos of the actress on stage in Rockaby clearly show the lace-trimmed bodice of a sequined  black dress.)  It was a remarkable vision that could be mesmerizing enough to distract a spectator from the words Dwan is saying.  Her monologue, Dwan’s recorded voice, became a litany, with phrases and words repeated more like an incantation or sound poem than a text. 

The curtain opened to reveal Dwan already in the chair.  The light didn’t follow Dwan as she rocked back and forth, so as she rocked in a steady rhythm (which at least one reviewer likened to “the beats of a slowly collapsing heart”), her mask-like face moved in and out of the light.  Like Dwan’s pacing in Footfalls, the rocking was regular to the point of seeming mechanical, as if the rocker were moving on its own.  It was hypnotic—or, as the New York Times’ Ben Brantley called the movement, “soporific”—intended to lull the woman into the sleep of death.  (The play’s English title alludes to the nursery rhyme “Rock-a-bye Baby” that seems to conflate birth, sleep, and death in its lyrics.)  The rocker’s rhythmic creaking as it totters was, indeed, sleep-inducing.  The woman’s recorded thoughts recount her past life and her mother’s (is this the same woman from Footfalls some years later?) as she pulls back from the world. 

Like Footfalls, Rockaby is divided into sections, each one signaled when the woman says “More,” each time a little softer.  Dwan joined in with the recording in the one-word plea or demand, until the last section as her head slowly dropped onto her chest.  The first parts of the monologue, in which the voice speaks of the death of the woman’s mother (in that house?  That chair?  That dress?) and her search through an upstairs window first for someone like her, then anyone at all, seem to be recounting the woman’s past as she withdrew stage by stage from the rest of the world; the last part, in which the woman’s moved downstairs and no longer looks out the window, parallels what we see on stage so the voice appears to be narrating the woman’s present, which is, of course, her end.  The London Independent called it “a kind of auto-euthanasia.”

When my mother was dying in the hospice unit of a Silver Spring hospital a little less than a year ago, one of the nurses told me that the occasional muttering and shouts, the movements of her eyes, and changes in facial expression may be her responses to visions and sounds she’s hearing in her head.  It was a Catholic hospital, so the nurse thought it might be visions of loved ones in the afterlife, but I wonder if it wasn’t more like what Beckett posited was going on in Dwan’s character’s deteriorating mind in Rockaby: the revisiting of the life being left behind.  (Fortunately, my mother’s life had been a great deal happier than Beckett’s character’s.)

Dwan’s performances in these three encounters with dying were unquestionably astonishing pieces of work, approached with intelligence, strength, and sensitivity (and not a small amount of Irish poetry in her heart and voice).  Brantley asserted in 2014, “Ms. Dwan, you see, is an instrument of Beckett, in that way saints and martyrs are said to be instruments of God,” and I’ll let that comment stand for me as well.  That didn’t make watching her any easier to take, however.  Clearly, every theatergoer will have a different experience of this trilogy, and there’s no reconciling one viewer’s take-away with another’s.  The plays are oddly moving, even as they’re disturbing and a little frightening, and I had the impression, without being able to articulate it, that I’d experienced something profound.  Yet, I have to admit—and I suspect this will be true for others as well—that the experience was more awe-inspiring than pleasurable. 

“Taken together,” wrote Lyn Gardner of the 2014 Royal Court début of the Trilogy in the Guardian, “this is an hour that feels like being trapped in somebody else’s nightmare.”  That absolutely nails it.  The whole evening, as short as it was, left me with a feeling of loss and despair—it’s not a happy evening at the theater—and sadness.  It was very hard for me not to flash on my mother’s last year as her mind disintegrated and then her body died while I was listening to Dwan speak Beckett’s words.  On the 10-block walk home, I was lost in thought about what I’d just witnessed.  It wasn’t cathartic, more Proustian in a distressing way.  It was, in the end, though, an experience I’m mighty glad I had; sometimes, I guess, a little discomfort has trade-offs—especially when it comes from art of the quality of these plays and Dwan’s performances. 

It should be a shame on the New York City theater press, here in the theater capital of the country, if not the world, that there were almost no reviews of Dwan’s Beckett Trilogy at the Skirball Center.  (The same had been true of the Godot at the Skirball in October.  I wonder if it’s about the venue.)  None of the major print outlets, including the so-called Paper of Record, reviewed this performance (though, to be fair, the Times covered the 2014 outing at BAM); there are a couple of on-line reviews I’ll cite, but for the purposes of going broad, I’ll have to cite some of the big papers that ran notices of Dwan’s stops in other cities like Boston and L.A.

The tour that stopped at NYU Skirball last month was in Toronto, Canada, in October 2015, playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre.  In the Globe and Mail, J. Kelly Nestruck said of Not I, “Dwan’s demonic delivery of the words . . . lands in your own ears the way words do when you are in an extreme state, a state of terror.”  Of Footfalls, Nestuck reported, “It looks great,” but found that the “ambiguity is missing in Dwan’s version” because her “emphasis on musicality and precise physicality over emotionally connected delivery takes away from this one.”  Rockaby, however, is “a simple short, but I found it almost unbearably moving in its depiction of the end of life.”  The Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian declared, “The darkness has never seemed as bright as it does in Beckett Trilogy”: despite the theater’s “stygian blackness,” Ouzounian insisted, “you will see enough to keep you thinking for weeks ahead.”  Dwan, he pronounced, “is brave, she is brilliant and she is unforgettable, like the man whose words she brings to life.” 

In Boston last March, where the trilogy was housed at the Paramount Center, Terry Byrne wrote in the Boston Globe, “Something extraordinary happens in the utter darkness of the “ theater because of “Dwan’s stunning performance.”  On the website Arts Fuse, Bill Marx called Dwan’s performance “powerful and . . . deliciously revelatory.”  The actress “is adroitly alive to the verbal and metaphysical nuances of these somberly lyrical pieces.”  Marx characterized Not I as “fabulously quicksilver,” a “roiling sonic whirlwind.  Amusing, frightening, confusing, bedeviling.”  Though Dwan performed “with admirable commitment and skill,” Marx found Footfalls and Rockaby lacking the “sense of mischievousness generated in Not I.”  He complained that in the final two playlets, “the emphasis fell a bit too heavily on the futility.”  He characterized this deficiency as a “quibble with what is a memorable evening . . . that was uplifting.”

On the Left Coast, the Lisa Dwan Production of Beckett’s three short plays was staged at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California, in the April week before it came to New York City.  Charles McNulty warned in the Los Angeles Times, “What is frightening about these works . . . isn’t the dimness of the physical production but the blinding illumination of existence as a wound.”  Warning, “It takes a brave actor to perform any one of these monologues,” McNulty asserted, “Dwan doesn’t so much enact these plays as take possession of them in the manner of a spirit on temporary leave from purgatory.”  He found, however, that Dwan’s “speed of delivery” in Not I came “at too high a cost” because too many “of the words are unintelligible” and “too much of the context . . . is lost.”  The L.A. reviewer acknowledged, though, that “‘Footfalls’ and ‘Rockaby,’ fortunately, are superbly executed.”  Here Dwan’s “embodied pathos unites these explorations of daughters imprisoned in their own skulls.  Her rhythmic movements are coordinated perfectly with Beckett’s words, which function more like a score than a traditional play.”  On the website of Annenberg Media, a student-run media organization at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, theater editor Ryan Brophy pronounced Dwan “a necromancer” as she “breathes life into the ether of the blackness in a fashion unlike quite nearly anything I have yet to see in Los Angeles.”  Beckett’s “legacy lies in the abstract,” observed Brophy, “yet Ms. Dwan makes his concepts specific.  So specific, in fact, that as we let the ethereal, haunting 55-minute trilogy wash over us, we experience a flooding of untapped sensation that can only be triggered by stories of this deep a caliber.”  Not I, “the first few minutes” of which, said Brophy, was “the most unnerving part of the show,” was “hellish, disorienting, panic-inducing”; Footfalls “showcases the actress in her most vulnerable state of beauty”; and in Rockaby, “the most heartbreaking” piece, Dwan “submits” to the “power” of darkness.  In conclusion, Brophy challenged “anyone who did not experience some sort of spiritual revival or enlightening from this production to go see a shrink,” even though the trilogy “is not, per se, enjoyable.”  Dwan, he reported, “commands the stage and the text with a boldness and an openness uncompromising in its severity.” 

Turning now to coverage of the New York visit of the Beckett Trilogy, arguably the most prominent notice appeared as a short review in a two-notice column by Fern Siegel of the Huffington Post, who called the trilogy “a musing on the persistence of consciousness against all odds, as well as a realization that suffering is endemic to the human experience.”  Siegel reported, “In the hands of an accomplished actress like Dwan . . . it is a haunting experience.”  The actress “brings dexterity to each character, while sustaining specifically crafted moments with grace,” said the on-line reviewer, and “[a]ided by lighting designer James Farncombe and sound designer David McSeveney, Dwan’s performance is memorable.”   

On TheaterScene, Darryl Reilly declared that Dwan is “justified” in being “heralded as the successor to the late actress Billie Whitelaw as the foremost female interpreter of Beckett’s work.”  Her acting in the three plays, said Reilly, “is a spellbinding feat”: “Each of her characterizations is distinct vocally and physically and each is compelling.”  Her performance in Not I “is quite entertaining amidst the sheer symbolism”; in Footfalls, Dwan plays both roles “hypnotically”; but in Rockaby, the actress “is at her eeriest.”  These performances, added Reilly, “are enhanced by the ravishing theatricality of the production” and the review-writer concluded, “This mesmerizing production of Beckett Trilogy: Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby vividly captures that expression with Lisa Dwan’s titanic performance and its striking presentation.”  Tyler Plosia pronounced Dwan’s presentation of Not I “a terrifying experience” on Strage Buddy, one that’s “hard to imagine anyone getting . . . any more perfect than Dwan.”  This is followed by Footfalls, “a grave and sobering meditation” that’s “fraught with tension and an almost paranormal suspense,” and then Rockaby, in which Dwan’s portrayal of a woman whose “life has come to haunt her prematurely” serves as “the close of our difficult and enthralling experience.” 

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