I want to share a great article written by actor Lisa Dawn for The Guardian, who is currently starring in the one person – well, one mouth – play, Not I, by Samuel Beckett.
Beckett at his most absurd, this play stands on its own in theatre.
Beckett’s Not I: how I became the ultimate motormouth
Samuel Beckett left strict instructions for his ‘one-mouth’ play. Don’t act. And you can never go fast enough. Easier said than done.
Every pore of my face and neck is smothered with thick black grease and cloaked in charcoal. With surgical precision, I wet-wipe my lips and pull down the opaque tight shroud. Blinded now, I reach out for the hand that will guide me up the steep steps to the platform. “That’s the first strap, Lisa.”
The sound is muffled, but I can pick out some voices in the crowd below. My forehead is pushed forward, pressed between a thick blindfold and plank of wood. My arms are placed inside metal clasps, and my heartbeat reverberates against the blackened boards: don’t panic, don’t panic. I will never get used to this claustrophobic grip. Becky, my stage manager, pushes my neck forward through a gap large enough for only a third of my face and fastens the second strap of the head harness. Now my ears are closed off. Breathe. I breathe in dust from the curtain in front of me, into a mouth that hovers exactly eight feet above the stage.
I first heard about Not I in my teens, from the great Beckett actor Stephen Brennan. He told me about this short, intense play, where an actor is suspended in utter darkness except for her disembodied mouth spewing a torrent, a stream of consciousness. The mouth appears to float about the stage. I was transfixed by the image he painted.
In 1972, shortly after Beckett wrote Not I, the American actor Jessica Tandy played the role. Backstage, he told her she had destroyed his play. At 22 minutes, she had delivered it far too slowly. He then wrote to its director Alan Schnieder to say he would direct Billie Whitelaw in London himself, “to find out if this is theatre or not”.
In 2005, I was sent the script by the director Natalie Abrahami. In between the sheer poetry and the fractured narrative, I saw a transcript of how the mind works – not a linear stream of thought, but layers of interjections, interruptions, insurrections. In the scattering of Christian pieties and Irish colloquialisms, I also heard the sound of home.
From the moment I was cast, Abrahami banned Whitelaw’s name from the rehearsal room. But it looms large among Beckettians; her close affiliation to him provokes a natural call and response. The impact of her original 14-minute triumph at the Royal Court in London resonates 40 years on. And yet it was vital not to let that performance affect mine. If I was to pay homage to Beckett’s ultimate note – “Don’t act” – I’d have to find my own entry point. To this day, I have never seen any version of the piece performed in the theatre, but I have watched the film version of Billie’s, directed by Beckett in 1977 (the year I was born). When Beckett watched the rushes, he turned to his friend and biographer James Knowlson to say: “My god, it looks like a giant vulva!”
There is not a single aspect of Not I that isn’t difficult. As with all Beckett’s work, there are strict stage directions that must be adhered to. He was a holistic artist, and the visual, textual and sensory elements of the performance are of equal importance. Included in this, I might add, is the actor’s terror. Every performance is knife-edge stuff. Beckett wanted this piece to play on the nerves of the audience, not the intellect. And in writing a text so near to unlearnable as Not I, with its exhaustively tricksy repetition and countless interjections to be spoken at such speed, he gets it. It is so rarely performed that I cannot afford a mistake.
I have been fortunate in that everywhere I’ve lived has had stairs. In the run-up to a show – I’ve done it in 2005 and 2009 – I perform the piece at least three times a day, fastening myself into my makeshift harness between the bannisters. I record each performance, then carefully play it over with the text. If I go wrong even halfway through, back I go.
There is not a cell of my body that isn’t called to arms while performing, but most challenging of all is to silence one’s own internal Not I. There’s no room for reckless thoughts. They disturb the concentration. But like vultures, they hover above his lean lines. “Out into this world …” it begins. Did you turn off the gas? Your mobile? “This World …” This forever feral mind of mine.
When I met Billie in 2006, we bonded immediately, like two shell-shocked war veterans. About a year later, I received a call from her out of the blue. “I want to give you his notes, I need to give you his notes. Can you come round?” Soon she was conducting me over her kitchen table. “I can’t read or write music,” she said, “but if I were a musician, I’d have put a crotchet here instead of a quaver.” She recalled what Beckett had told her: “‘You can’t go fast enough for me.’ Also, ‘If the word has several syllables, use them. Ev-er-y-thing. No-thing.'”
When I was asked to perform the piece again at London’s Southbank Centre in 2009, Billie and I stepped up our sessions. In repeatedly instructing “No colour” or “Don’t act”, Beckett requires us to offer up our entire nervous systems – our “centre”, as Billie calls it. When I can simply let the words play their music out on my whole being, only then can I begin to approach the result I’m aiming for: pure Beckett.
I once asked Billie if she felt like a puppet. “No!” she exclaimed. “Because without me, he couldn’t do it.” And without Billie, neither could I. Only a few of us know what it is to hang in that darkness, terrified and alone till the curtain opens to let in the laser of light that fires the mouth and then to speak so fast you can’t think and think so fast you can’t speak … yet speak she must.
In this video, you can listen to Billie Whitelaw talking about her experience in the original production as well as watch her performance.