Theatre Critic and Journalist

Nor Me: A Brain-Splurge on Not I

Nor Me: A Brain-Splurge on Not I

Deep breath. Here goes: I just don’t get it. Or rather: it just doesn’t get me. Inadmissible as it is, these three Beckett shorts did next to nothing for me. They left me cold: my psyche intact; my soul unshaken.

Sacrilege. Philistine. Imbecile. Fraud. I know. I know. This is inadmissible stuff. This is cultural heresy – like trashing The Wasteland or shooting down Sondheim. Beckett’s genius is beyond all doubt. He has passed into the cannon; his reputation cemented as ONE OF THE GREATEST PLAYWRIGHTS THAT EVER LIVED. EVER LIVED.EVER LIVED. ever lived.

You can’t not like Beckett. He’s a syllabus staple. You probably just don’t understand it, bless. You’re probably just not watching it right. Let it wash over you. Drink it in. Swim in his language. Try holding your breath.

OK. Look. You can’t be a critic if you don’t do Beckett. Remember 3rd August 1955? Remember the next day’s newspapers and their perplexed Godot naysayers? History has proved them wrong. It has ridiculed them and it took only four days to do so, thanks to the Sunday morning battlecries of Tynan and Hobson. You do want to be #TEAMTYNAN, don’t you? There ain’t no such team as #TEAMHOPEWALLACE. You badmouth Beckett at your peril, boy. No good will come of it.

Anyway. I digress. It’s like this.

Ok, so there’s this mouth, right, and it’s got no body and no head. It just floats in an otherwise pitch-black room. It’s about – what? – 10 feet above you and it’s much smaller than you expected. Because you’ve read a bit about it and you’ve seen video footage of Billie Whitelaw’s mouth on YouTube. And because it’s so small in real life, you don’t really get that tingle of intermingled lust and disgust – the push-pull, attraction-revulsion – that comes from the way tongue, teeth and lips clacker together, lubricated by saliva, but also absolutely muscle and bone.

Anyway, it all starts off with this string of cute little coughs, like a helium balloon clearing its throat, and then this tiny little mouth starts talking. It turns into MotorMouth and the thing is that you can’t keep hold of what its saying. Yes, alright, you’ll catch the odd word that’s given a bit of added volume or a turbo-kick of throaty rusk, like a vocal engine rev, and every so often the flow trips up like a scratch on a CD. “Who? Me? No! SHE.” But that’s pretty much the only turn of phrase that you retain afterwards. Everything else goes by at such a speed that it runs through your head, tickling your brain tissue as it races from ear to ear, but leaving no distinct impression behind it.

And there I go, making it sound much more exciting and electrifying than it actually is. Because that’s the temptation with Not I: it’s such a singular and bizarre thing that the tendency is to dress it up as something it’s not. It’s so easy to mythologise it and extend it into something exotic and essential, something you feel like no other piece of theatre, something that resonates somewhere deep, deep inside you, chiming with some subconscious sense of self that…

I’m doing it again.

Look, it’s novel as an experience, but it’s just not all that necessary. Good art should alter you somehow. It needs to surprise you. Not I doesn’t come close. Mostly I remember thinking two things. One: “Is that a bit of cheek?” Two: “Is it me or is it moving?”

Every now and then – quite regularly, actually, maybe even more often than not – there’s this little flash of pink, fleshy cheek that hasn’t been covered up by boot polish or whatever they actually use to cover Lisa Dwan’s face. And that little peek of cheek, probably no more than a couple of milimeters utterly undermines the notion that this particular mouth is a disembodied entity. It cuts right through the illusion and with it the fiction and so instead of drifting off along with the words, I’m thinking about the practicalities involved in the staging: about who’s mouth that is and how they’re positioned so that only their mouth (and that little peek of cheek) is visible. I’m thinking about whether the set involves a little square flap of cloth that’s lifted up to reveal the mouth because, I might be wrong, but there seems to be a certain flexibility about the join between black make up and black set. And I’m thinking about the fact that there’s someone wearing make-up and that that make-up will have to be removed pretty bloody thoroughly because in a few minutes, the same actress is going to have to be back onstage in Footfalls and that would be pretty much ruined were it performed it with this muddy streak of black boot polish smudged across the face. And I’m thinking about the impossibility of staging this text, because reality can never match the abstract idea that Beckett managed to put down on paper, and that recalls something Natalie Abrahami said when I interviewed her about Happy Days the other week, namely that Beckett was writing for a theatre that wasn’t actually possible in his day and that maybe now technology enables us to create a more accurate sense of what he actually intended, with a pitchier pitch black and an actress better able to approach the speed of thought, because, as has been stressed – and all power to her elbow – Lisa Dwan has shaved almost five whole minutes off Billy Whitelaw’s time and got the thing down to nine minutes something, but the thing is that that makes it more impenetrable than ever because even the rhythms and repetitions that might have snagged on some synapse or other as they raced through your brain have been eradicated for the sake of speed. Then it comes again. That glitch in the matrix: “Who? Me? No! SHE.” And it pulls you out of that train of thought and back into the piece once again.

So I strain my eyes and fix my stare on the mouth and I furrow my brow and I try to keep up with what the mouth is saying. Something about eyelids and winter. “The buzzing.” “Not catching the half of it.” “The tongue in the mouth.”

Is it me or is the mouth moving? Because it looks like it’s moving. It looks like the mouth has started to drift off to the left hand side and it seems to get smaller as it does so, but then it starts coming back. And I’m wondering whether this is just an optical illusion – a bit like when you try to focus on those dust particles settled on the surface of your eyeball and, as your eye moves to fix on them, they move with it and veer off-centre. Or whether they’ve rigged up some hydraulic platform to give the illusion of an optical illusion, that is, to trick our eyes into thinking that they’ve been tricked. So I put my hand out and start pointing at the mouth to see if it’s actually moving when it seems to be. And I’m concentrating on keeping my hand still, while my eyes drift left, but wondering whether my hand my instinctively, subconsciously moves with it, as if maybe my whole body has become woozy and delirious in all this. But I don’t think it has – no I’m sure it hasn’t – and besides, I’m doing it again. Making this seem something beyond what it actually was. “Who? Me? No! SHE.” Oh, right. Yes. Of course. Beckett. Concentrate.

So I strain my eyes and fix my stare on the mouth and I furrow my brow and I try to keep up with what the mouth is saying. Something about buzzing again. And April. And, oh, is it finished? That was quick. And quite long too, now I think about it.

And look, I could intellectualise all this. I could trot out various different theories.

That putting three of these shorts together manages to muddle their distinct qualities into some vague familiar Beckettian overtone, so that they almost cancel each other out.

That the impact of these pieces is dependent on the shock of the new: the jolt of unexpectedly finding yourself confronted by a disembodied mouth spouting words as a catherine wheel spits sparks and having to reconcile yourself to that; the fascinated squint at a familiar body part that, seen thus, looks so unfathomably alien and having to reconcile yourself to that.

That we’ve become more visually-orientated as audience membmers, incapable of listening in the same way as once we might have done. Maybe that’s just the way that I watch theatre. It’s interesting too, that director Walter Asmus does away with the figure of the Auditor for the sake of total darkness. In that he’s mirroring the BBC2 film, which was criticised for making the piece a visual experience over and aural one. Perhaps today we demand more of our stage images.

Because people talk about Beckett’s shorts as staged poems, but, to me, they always seem more like long-exposure photographs. That’s what Footfalls and Rockaby feel like, I guess; moving stills. The first shows a young woman walking back and forth, left then right, right then left; the second, a woman rocking back and forth, forwards then back. And actually, these images can catch you off-guard – particularly when lit so cleverly as they are by James Farncombe – they can muster a chill, but they don’t really have much in the way of heat as performances. They have a certain glacial elegance, but they don’t demand interpretations and the don’t seem particularly human. At least not to me. To me, they feel like illustrations.

That Beckett’s plays have become cultural artefacts, dipped in preservatives by a stricture-happy estate fending off invention, and become a bourgeois experience – something to tick off your cultural bucket list – rather than a living, breathing, scorching piece of art.

But that would all be rather moot, because it’s not really an intellectual thing, but a visceral one. Or rather, it’s not visceral at all. It just doesn’t get me and so I just don’t get it.

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