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Not I, Royal Court

Samuel Beckett
★★★

Pros: This is a masterful piece of theatre, brilliantly written and delivered with incredible sensory impact. The post show film of Billie Whitelaw, and talk with Lisa Dwan (actress) and Roger Michell was interesting and enlightening.

Cons: At nine minutes long it is very brief, and in my opinion delivered too quickly. Having never seen it, I did not understand a word of what was said.

Our Verdict: If you are interested in Beckett’s work this is a must-see experience. If you are not, catch Billie Whitelaw’s iconic version on youtube.

Courtesy of The Royal Court

The theatre is pitch black – not a glint of light anywhere (apparently this is illegal!). Then a mouth
appears to emerge out of the darkness, illuminated by a single spotlight, rapidly speaking a stream of words, incomplete sentences, phrases punctuated by pauses and screams. The mouth floats toward the audience, hovers high above the stage, gets larger and recedes as it speaks, sometimes inconceivably too large to be a human mouth. Then nine minutes later the light fades as the words diminish to a whisper and the lights come up. That is Samuel Beckett’s one woman monologue, Not I.

This performance is followed by a video interview with Billie Whitelaw, who played the mouth at the Royal Court in 1973, discussing the role and what Beckett intended for it. Whitelaw was tutored for the role by Beckett himself, and her insight into the man and his professional relationship with her and with his work is interesting and poignant. Following this video there is a discussion and question and answer session with the actress currently performing the piece, Lisa Dwan to whom Whitelaw gave Beckett’s original performance notes, and director Roger Michell who worked with Becket in the 70’s. There is a lot of interesting discussion around how the monologue is staged, rehearsed and performed along with more personal insights into what Beckett himself was like to work with and what he intended for this piece.

The play itself is intense – the complete deprivation of light heightens your hearing into which this barrage of grating discourse is poured. Eyes are completely riveted on the floating mouth high above the stage trying to decipher what it says, trying to find sense in the words even to recognise the words themselves. I could hardly breath, the effect is both mesmerising and disconcerting, grating yet melodic. It finishes and I have barely understood a word. Having not read up on it or seen it before I am left bereft of any comprehension of what it is or what it means – what is it all about?

The post show discussion makes it clear that this is the intention of this performance –Beckett said he wanted it performed at the speed of thought, he intended it to escape the intellect of the audience and play to their senses and that is precisely what Lisa Dwan achieves. What is lost in this delivery is any meaning, and for me without some connection with what is being said the sensory impact is hollow and loses gravitas. After the show I had a look at Billie Whitelaw’s iconic performance in 1973, which is approximately five minutes longer. Even on the screen the visual experience is phenomenal, but being able to identify the words makes an enormous difference to the impact of the piece in its entirety – in a few short minutes the whole disturbing lifetime of a woman is almost absorbed into consciousness without a conscious thought. I can’t help thinking that this is exactly how Beckett intended it – if he knew the ‘speed of thought’ would disable the words and disconnect the audience from the 70 year old woman saying them, I’m not sure he would have said it. After all, on seeing Billie Whitelaw’s final rehearsal in 1973 he had one word for her performance – ‘perfection’.

Spoiler alert – one astonishing thing we learn in the post show talk is that the mouth is not floating at all, it is rigidly fixed in place, in a hole on a black wall. Dwan’s head and arms a strapped in to prevent any movement at all. The effect of the floating mouth is indeed an illusion, an incredible trick of the mind, which apparently each audience member experiences differently. That in itself is amazing.

Not I is a masterpiece of theatre without a doubt. If you are a Beckett-ophile, this is a must see opportunity as the theatrical experience and the post show discussions with people who have first hand knowledge of the man himself is wonderfully inclusive. If not, draw the curtains, turn the lights off and watch Whitelaw’s performance online – it is phenomenal.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Not I runs at Royal Court until 25th May 2013.
Box office: 020 7565 5000 or book online at http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/your-visit/tickets/

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