I haven’t succumbed to the onsie trend yet, which is a weird thing for an arts journalist to be thinking about during an interview with one of London’s most mesmerising stage actresses. But Lisa Dwan who will be performing Samuel Beckett’s obscure trilogy Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby in the West End from February, is also the person responsible for bringing the onsie to the UK.
More on that story later.
For now, she’s telling me about celebrating Christmas in London and how she knows all her neighbours. “I make a point of it, I’m so Irish though” she laughs. Brought up in Athlone, County Westmeath Lisa had “a very Irish childhood – I think we’ll just call it that” before she went on to train as a ballet dancer at Dorothy Stevens School of Ballet in Leeds.
The discipline she honed there seems to have paid off in spades for Lisa. Despite all the demands of Beckett’s trilogy, particularly Not I and Footfalls which are very specifically scripted, she’s been knocking them out of the park since 2005. Photographer Eliza Power and I meet her just before she completes another sold out run at Royal Court ahead of the show’s West End transfer.
Not I is one of Beckett’s most complex plays. Told through one character, The Mouth, it is a free-falling train of thought delivered by Lisa pretty much at speed of thought. “When I first saw it,” she says with wide-eyed intensity, “I just saw a transcript of how my mind works. It was as if someone had taken a literary photograph of how thought works: the layer and the interruption and the speed and the floating and just not being able to stop. That’s how my mind works!” she laughs before adding, “I mean, yeah, a little slower in the morning but after that first coffee…”
With Lisa strapped behind a wooden board, all the audience sees in a blacked out auditorium is her mouth, expertly lit by James Farncombe. “Because of the sensory deprivation in Not I,” Lisa explains, “this sort of illusion occurs. The Mouth appears to roam and it’s different for every person in the audience. I just think that’s incredible, that an audience can have this unique visual experience and it’s not the same for any two people.”
By the same token, Lisa is tied to a wooden board in the centre of the stage but exactly eight foot above it. “My head can’t even move a millimetre and yet I feel like I’m flying about the auditorium” she says, still surprised at the trickery. “It’s a bizarre thing that happens. I remember the first time I did it here back in May, it was like taking some sort of trip, it was so strange.”
Director Walter Asmus welcomes Lisa’s own take on the pieces. In fact, it’d probably hard to avoid it. “And what’s really interesting about Beckett” she continues excitedly, “is that my performance and Billie Whitelaw’s performance couldn’t be more different from each other.” Billie Whitelaw, now aged 81, performed Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby while working in close collaboration with Becket in the ‘70s. “And yet,” Lisa continues, “we’re both extremely faithful to what is considered a really strict script. But you see, there’s so much scope within those specificities.
“Sometimes when I’ve played around with the text” she confesses, “and not stuck to the script, the piece suffers. It’s written like music. I’d argue that Beckett is so much more like a composer than a playwright. He’s a very holistic artist. One of the elements of Not I which is definitely felt by the audience is the actor’s terror. It’s written in such a tricksy way that you can never get complacent with it, in fact it gets harder. My terror is 100% genuine and that resonates with the audience, that emotion that’s passed on through the poetry and it completely charges the actress when they memorise it.”
Does she have to stick to the script as much as we’re led to believe, I wonder. Particularly with the other two pieces, Footfalls and Rockaby. The former being about the relationship between an elderly mother and the adult daughter who paces outside her room; the latter following the lonely words of a prematurely old woman who longs for “another living soul.”
She considers this, but Beckett, she insists, doesn’t exclude the actor’s idiosyncrasies despite his demands. “You see, when you look at the original script of Footfalls, Becket actually wrote it like music: there’s your bar, there’s your walk of the nine paces and on step three this word is said, on step four another. So much of my approach with Beckett is instinctive, when I first read Not I, I found the rhythm that I still use today. When I found mother’s voice (in Footfalls) I found May’s voice, when I found May’s voice, I found the way she walked. They were combined, so I approach it almost like a dancer which is thinking completely, not thinking specifically but being open in every way.”
Though all three plays are over in 55 minutes, it’s potentially that openness that makes it feel as though you’ve been in the company of these characters for much longer. With Footfalls, so much unfolds about the imprint a parent leaves on their offspring. “There is an involuntary metamorphosis that happens despite yourself,” Lisa says about the parent-child dynamic, “you can’t hold back the horses when you sound like your mother or you hear the critics in your head. You wonder where those early wounds came from. I think Beckett heard his mother’s voice in his head. From what I gather their relationship was difficult and caused him a great deal of angst. He was what was considered “maladjusted” which is what I think most geniuses are in parts of their lives.” His mother probably saw his potential though, right? “His mother wanted him to be an accountant.”
Though her own parents had the usual worries about how their actress daughter would earn enough money to support herself, they never held Lisa back. Not that they needed to worry. The actress is also a travel writer, a presenter and interviewer at Hay Festival. She could also be credited with the recent onesie trend in the UK, being as she is International Relations Manager at OnePiece. “I’m a generalist” she states proudly, “I always feel as an actor that our job is to represent the world and how can we do that if we’re not living in it fully? It also gives me autonomy so I don’t have to take awful TV jobs and it means I can find projects and give them the breadth and scope that they deserve.”
But a solo show in the West End is something new and comes with expectations, surely? “All my expectations have been surpassed months ago! To have sold out the Royal Court twice, to have a West End transfer selling out, to have every reviewer – bar the Daily Mail, haha! – giving glowing responses, I can’t believe it. I’ve worked my ass off to do this and I work my ass off every night but I just can’t get over that it’s been so popular. There’s a risk with something like this, it can be like Marmite and what I can’t believe is that Beckett’s later works, the more obscure works, the ones probably deemed to be more inaccessible the ones that are more pared down and reduced to these images, that they’d be so pertinent today, that they’d be spellbinding audiences. The time is obviously ripe now for Beckett and these works.”
Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby runs at Duchess Theatre from February 3rd.
Words: Naima Khan
Images: All rights reserved © Eliza Power