The Theatreguide.London Review
I / Footfalls / Rockaby
Royal Court and Duchess Theatres January-February 2014, and tour
...or, as Beckett fans might know them, the mouth one, the walking one and the chair one.
These three monologues for women by Samuel Beckett share certain qualities. They're short – the whole evening comes to less than an hour. They're all typically minimalist and elliptical, hinting at contexts and backstories without spelling them out. And they all seem to present lives blighted by failure and lack of connection to others, responded to in different ways.
The supreme Beckett actress Billie Whitelaw, who was first or second to perform all these plays, reports that, in directing her in the premiere of Footfalls himself, Beckett repeatedly ordered her not to attempt to act the text, focussing his attention on such technical points as the precise rhythm of her pacing and the precise angle at which to hold her arms.
With all three texts it has been up to later actresses to reach for clearer narratives and realistic characterisations.
Here, Lisa Dwan and director Walter Asmus walk a middle ground, recognising the stories behind the three short plays but retaining much of the formal distance Beckett would have preferred.
In Not I a disembodied mouth, pinspotted on a dark stage (credit to lighting designer James Farncombe for achieving the effect better than I've ever seen it before), babbles compulsively and at high energy, the phrases tumbling out of it faster than they can be formed into sentences.
And little wonder – the history we might be able to piece together is of a woman who led a loveless and virtually silent life until suffering a stroke in old age that finally loosened her tongue (or at least the speech centre of her brain) so that now, possibly in the seconds before death, a lifetime of words is rushing out.
Lisa Dwan captures the excitement and the discovery and determined assertion of selfhood, if perhaps not quite the joy that might be deduced to be there as well, and even if you don't quite catch the fictional situation, the sheer energy of her performance communicates a refusal to go quietly into that good night.
Footfalls shows a forty-year-old woman compulsively pacing the floor for hours every night, occasionally speaking with her unseen invalid mother. There are hints of some traumatic event in the past (A thwarted love? A loss of faith? Much is made of her once missing church), but what we primarily sense is the limited comfort and escape from thought that mindless ritual allows her.
This is the weakest of the three in Dwan's hands, the combination of a very dark stage and the actress's affectless delivery allowing little entry into the character.
In Rockaby an old woman rocks slowly in her chair while a recorded voice (her thoughts?) describes a life of complete disconnection from others, so much so that she settled for sitting at her window in the hope of espying some other isolated soul sitting at her window. Failing even at that, she has retired to her chair, waiting for death.
What drama there is here lies in whatever interaction actress and director find between the physical and all-but-silent woman and the recorded voice. Some, for example, have heard in the onstage woman's calls for 'More!' whenever the voice pauses a rebellion against approaching death and a demand for something more out of life.
Dwan has chosen a more passive and resigned characterisation, her rocking woman offering no resistance so that the voice begins to take on the sound of charitable and kindly release.
There is no question that all three scripts are virtuoso acting pieces, nor that they are open to varying interpretations. With the middle play a small letdown, Lisa Dwan offers both an impressive technical display and some sensitive insights into Beckett.
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