'Not I' review or 'Screeching and scrabbling about in the dark.'
'Not I', Samuel Beckett
Royal Court Theatre, 22nd May 2013
'Not I', as with so many of Beckett's works, renders the critic meaningless. Try to pry this piece open and decipher its meaning and it will fall apart in your hands. Ostensibly, 'Not I' is about a seventy (ish) yr old lady who is now relating – very quickly and very erratically - salient moments from her lonely life. The only snag is, we can't see this lady. All we can see is her mouth, spotlit and hovering high above the stage. 'Not I' is about that mouth; how it sounds and how it looks and what it makes us feel.
The Royal Court has done a brilliant (apparently illegal) job of making the entire auditorium pitch black. The effect is extraordinary. One can see absolutely nothing other than Lisa Dwan's delicate red lips, floating in mid-air. That mouth looks unbelievably small. Sometimes it seems funny and, at other moments, it's scary as hell.
One starts to see so much in that suspended mouth as the words – almost an afterthought – tumble over us. With such limits imposed on this piece – there is so little to see or hold onto – the imagination breaks off and roams free. It's a lot like the sensation one gets when listening to extraordinary music; the mind stays loosely attached to the music yet also wanders off to the most unlikely places. Staring deeply into that mouth, I saw mountains and clouds, lakes and rivers and fields that spread out forever. I saw a whole life and landscape nestled inside that tiny hole, on the verge of tumbling out and burying us all.
These images might sound far fetched but the dark does strange things to the soul. So, too, does Dwan's extraordinarily pacey delivery. We begin to feel incredibly disorientated as this torrent of words whooshes right past us and out of our reach. Against all the odds, we lurch blindly towards some sort of understanding, valiantly trying to root ourselves in this dark and senseless vacuum.
The tumbling words, the cold isolation of that tiny mouth and the pitch dark pile in on top of us. It's like being trapped inside a coffin. Lisa Dwan's jagged speech seems to mimic desperate scrabbling fingers, clawing at dirt and instinctively trying to break free. We root for her as we root for ourselves. It's lonely and dark but if we could just burst through that mud and breathe in deeply one last time, perhaps all of this might be worth something after all.