Who Speaks?: No’s Knife at the Old Vic

Lisa Dwan in No's Knife, her interpretation of Samuel Beckett's Texts From Nothing. Photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton.
Lisa Dwan in No’s Knife, her interpretation of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing. Photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton.

Imagine you are sitting in the stalls of a crowded theatre. You are facing forward, gazing up at the surface of the curtain that hides the stage. Rather than the usual red folds of velvety material, you are staring at an enormous sheet which depicts, in extreme close-up, a single closed eye. Every crease of skin is deepened by shadow, every eyelash is blackly furred with mascara – the image is stylised in such a way that this blown-up diagonal slash looks uncannily like a series of storms photographed from above the Earth’s atmosphere. Underneath the normal chatter generated by a packed house, there is a sound like the rising and falling of the tide. You slowly realise that it is not the ocean you are hearing but rather a person breathing, as though you stood within a chest cavity of cathedral-like proportions. The lights dim, the chatter fades away. The giant eye snaps open and your vision is drawn forward, the pupil expanding until the whole image turns black. The tidal breathing becomes more erratic, ragged with desperation. You see various images of a thin, pale woman floating in water (unless it is not water but some other, less obvious fluid). The breathing climaxes as the sheet is torn upwards and the stage illuminates. You are confronted by the sight of a woman, probably the same one you saw floating moments ago, now uncomfortably positioned – trapped – in a vertical crevasse, surrounded by rock & solid earth. The woman starts to speak.

This is the beginning of No’s Knife, a production currently taking place at the Old Vic. Though some posters for the play advertised “Samuel Beckett’s No’s Knife”, most other descriptions proffered by the Old Vic are more precise, summarising the production as “a selection of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, conceived and performed by Lisa Dwan”. The latter characterisation makes apparent to the reader that this play is something of a chimera. Beckett wrote the array of thirteen short prose pieces which compose Texts for Nothing simultaneous to the creation of his ground-breaking “trilogy” (Molloy, Malone & The Unnameable) in the year between 1950-1951. These thirteen texts are minimal in every sense: in breadth, in scope, in variation. They are crystalline distillations of Beckett’s utterly unique voice and are, as such, completely riveting. Lisa Dwan is an Irish actress who (rightly) won global acclaim for her performance of Beckett’s short dramatic episodes Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby in 2014. Not since Billie Whitelaw – personal muse of Beckett’s & someone Dwan was lucky enough to meet just before the older actor sadly passed away – has the theatrical establishment, critics and pundits alike, reacted so favourably to an interpreter of Beckett’s work.

In No’s Knife, Dwan takes a great risk by progressing beyond this role: from “interpreter” to “intercessor”. Previously Dwan had to follow the instructions provided by Beckett himself, to a lesser or greater extent, whereas in No’s Knife she commits to the challenge of removing four prose pieces from their collection (their “rightful” context) in order to transform them for the stage, deciding upon – that is, innovating – all of the necessary variables required by such a project, from lighting to set-design to her own tone of voice, movements etc. Hence we are met with an intriguing inversion of the Whitelaw-Beckett relationship: rather than Whitelaw being Beckett’s muse, in a sense Beckett has become Dwan’s muse.

This is not a criticism of Dwan – the production is fantastic. In the first episode she is as I described above, caught in a plane of rock, the surface of which is strongly reminiscent of a monochrome Gerhard Richter or Anselm Kiefer abstract. In the second episode Dwan stands as though amidst the wreckage of the first, in some kind of ruinous bog land. Here in this episode one is very much confronted by Dwan’s physicality – she was a classically trained ballet dancer until an injury prohibited her from pursuing the discipline, and it shows. Her slim, muscular body warps in unusual gestures and sculptural poses without ever appearing affected or heavy-handed. This episode was also Dwan’s most exhibitive vocally, almost every sentence nuanced differently from the one previous. Her range in this manner is even more striking than her bodily dynamism – she transforms, for instance, from a diminutive, middle class woman into a rural alcoholic with superhuman speed. The third episode is possibly the most restrained, in all senses. Dwan sits inside a tall box or cage suspended ten feet above the ground, lit very dimly, the only movement on stage being the swinging of this contraption. For those who are familiar with Dwan’s previous project, this episode is the one most aligned with the remarkable, subtractive visual aesthetic of Footfalls and Rockaby. In the fourth and final episode Dwan returns to the bog land, her attitude now less explosive, less mercurial, though no less intense for that. She moves closer and closer to the audience, the stage projecting into the theatre further than I was aware from my vantage point, so much so that her shadow – a perfect silhouette – follows Dwan by climbing the walls of the amphitheatre, as though seeking to interpose upon our world by escaping its own.

As to the content of her monologues, what can one say? It is Beckett, whose electric, terrifying prose is wholly singular, without comparison, almost impossible to describe. The same concerns present in almost all of his texts, whether early like Whoroscopes or late like Nohow On, are present here: the struggle for and against self-identification, the impossibility of experience, the reality of inexistence, the absurdity of representation and meaning and time. All four episodes deploy these themes, in stirring mellifluous style. The last episode (the best, to my mind) captures it all perfectly, as Dwan’s monologue opens with the statement: “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?”

Though No’s Knife is undoubtedly a dramatic success, its achievement is not without ambiguity. The production is not, strictly speaking, a play – it is, just as it is described above, a dramatic performance of prose. As such, there is absent the structural cohesion that one would expect from any work of a great playwright, especially from a genius such as Beckett. Rather than describing a whole, wherein the end relates to the beginning and vice versa, No’s Knife is a series or sequence of individual – though not isolated – chapters. Secondly, there is the question of authorship. To whom should this production be attributed? As I implied earlier, it seems to me that Lisa Dwan utilises Beckett to produce something that is at the very least a synthesis, but more like an outright innovation, a standalone theatrical work, attributable to Dwan in the same way that, say, The Wooster Group (an experimental drama company, based in New York) is primarily responsible for their production of Hamlet, which involved live actors responding to various screens installed across the stage, that in turn depicted edited versions of Richard Burton’s Hamlet (directed by John Gielgud on Broadway in 1964). The comparison might seem overstated at first, but on deeper reflection – if one considers both the supreme minimalism of Beckett’s prose and his surgical, tyrannical attention to every detail apropos the staging of his plays – I think the comparison apt. After all, if I were to break into an art museum, ink my forefinger and press it against a Basquiat painting, who could tell the difference? Yet if I were to do the same thing to Malevich’s White on White, the result would be utterly transformative and the determining agency of my act highly significant.

This question of authorship is intriguing and it will matter to many who see Dwan’s production. If you are a die-hard Beckettian, you may find No’s Knife problematic – this is, it is true, not what Beckett intended. Ultimately however, relevant to but beneath the question of authorship, Dwan’s production raises another question that is essential to Beckett’s oeuvre, if not wholly constitutive of his every endeavour. That is, the question of who speaks. In the final episode Dwan consistently refers to an external ‘he’:

“He thinks words fail him, he thinks because words fail him he’s on his way to my speechlessness, to being speechless with my speechlessness, he would like it to be my fault that words fail him, of course words fail him.”

As this episode began, naturally I – not being familiar with the text – wondered who was the man this woman spoke of. Immediately I realised my mistake – a mistake I would not have made, had I simply read the prose.  “He” was she, she speaking with Beckett’s voice about the self he incontrovertibly is and is not. Within this moment of confusion, I came close to the precise sense that Beckett’s prose wishes to instil within us – the uncanny experience of a depersonalised voice. By placing herself between us and the text, Dwan disrupts the connection of possession we would normally assume between the writer and the words, while the specificity of Beckett’s style (complementary to his status as the author) simultaneously prohibits us from imputing those words to her. Hence the words – the voice – is held in abeyance, suspended above embodiment, neutralised. This neutralisation, I realised, is not limited to the one, final episode, but applies throughout the seventy-minute production. By intervening upon Beckett, by disrupting his mastery of the text with her own agency, it may be argued that Dwan brings us further along the direction that Beckett himself wished to take, but which he was fundamentally unable to: the emergence of a voice from nowhere, belonging to no one. The voice, as he writes in Company, that “comes to him now from one quarter and now from another. Now faint from afar and now a murmur in his ear. In the course of a single sentence it may change place and tone…”.

I enjoyed No’s Knife immensely. Lisa Dwan is without doubt a great actor, and this may be the production that has made her so. Though I would suggest, for those who have not seen Beckett live – I myself being a die-hard Beckettian – that you see one of his plays first, this performance is an unequivocal triumph and will certainly enthral the imagination of any audience member, whether or not they are familiar with Beckett’s work.

No’s Knife continues at the Old Vic until Oct 15.

Tom Lordan

About Thomas Lordan

Tom Lordan is an Irish writer and philosopher, currently living in the UK. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and Kingston University, he completed his Masters thesis under the supervision of Catherine Malabou. He is a member of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP). Awarded the Philosophy Department‘s scholarship, he studies at Warwick University since October.

Tom Lordan is an Irish writer and philosopher, currently living in the UK. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and Kingston University, he completed his Masters thesis under the supervision of Catherine Malabou. He is a member of the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP). Awarded the Philosophy Department‘s scholarship, he studies at Warwick University since October.

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