No’s Knife – The Old Vic – 01/10/2016

No's Knife at the Old Vic
No’s Knife at the Old Vic

Beckett’s Texts for Nothing is brought to life on the stage by Lisa Dawn, nearly 70 years after being published as a collection of short prose pieces. As a collection of tales “rich in imagery but short on external coherence” (in the words of leading 20th century Beckett scholar, Stanley E. Gontarski) they would have made challenging adaptation material, but material with which Lisa Dawn had the experience, capability and fearlessness, to address.

Consolidating the voices of thirteen into the consciousness of one woman is handled deftly, with extraordinary acting from Dawn and cleverly integrated sound design that envelopes the large auditorium at the Old Vic into the experience. Her physicality shifts and changes with the unique demands of the role, from restriction in the extreme, to bursting out in a freeing physical embodiment of abandonment. Her voice finds footing in the very depths of her range, to a near unrecognisable growl of a man, then swoops and soars and sings. Though her voice is boosted and thrown about the space for effect with the help of electronic means, there is simply no doubting her sheer vocal capacity in any sense.

The sensation of being between two places is undeniable. However those places remain undefined, but for in a metaphysical sense. The central juxtaposition between high and low is realised through an inspired set design, but as can naturally be expected with Beckett, always in metaphor and never in an absolute reality.

The base earth is seen clearly in the set design, which in an absence of physical plot or characters becomes central to the piece. The spectacle of these moments in undeniable. The earth surrounds her from all angles, it feels pungent, it feels real. It becomes something for to physically grasp onto as she swings vehemently between frames of mind, but in itself represents a duality; a living material on the surface but formed from layers of oxygen starved plant decomposition which lay unseen underneath. Her free-flowing thoughts address her state of duality, torn between going and staying, between the tangible and secure, and with unheard footsteps just out of sight, the realm of the unknown.

When elevated above the ground, her lofty heights reveal more than another visual perspective, they also reveal elusive inner desires. The desire to control, to be in control of the metaphorical court room of her own head. The mental space the stage cannot occupy, accessible only through words which come thick and fast in this open, dark space, as her thoughts run away from her, conjuring people and places of her own imagining. Without visual reference, it is a big ask of an audience to journey with her in this sense. It is impossible to escape the feeling that aloft and swinging gently through the air, she is absent and unreachable.

The central character who throughout, is unnamed and enigmatic, is best known to us when she approaches us (as audience) and appears to attempt to engage with us directly. Underneath the spotlight,  illuminated by the faintly glowing proscenium architecture, the wasteland faded to black, she comes within inches of the front row, and speaks at her most confessional and candid;

‘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?’

She is no longer denying herself a choice, literally and metaphorically bogged down in the problem she “can’t leave” but she “can’t stay”. Leaving the set pieces behind and exposing her vulnerability to us in the spotlight, she opens her central dilemma up to the audience, she is revealing the core of her inner torment.

The constant need to catch breath, experienced though the set changes (in the pitch black), is palpable. It can be frustrating throughout the piece, that the imagery and allegory dense language moves too fast to keep up – but isn’t this the way with the human mind? We cannot keep up with our own mental abstractions. If hers were slowed down, if we were given the time to puzzle over each, one by one, their urgency through her passionate delivery would be lost. It is their urgency that makes each metaphor resonate. Subconsciously, we pick out truths where we find them, we find our own existence, our own existential experience. When no two minds are the same, how could we expect any different?

At our core, all of our lives are straddled between being our own and being bent out of shape by forces beyond our control. Though these forces differ from person to person and generation to generation, in the intermittent years between Beckett’s high point of topicallity and today, they have not gone away. In the wake of the Digital Age and Brexit, this internal battle has arguably even intensified.

The realisation of this relatively obscure text in its physical form goes so far beyond simply bringing the page to the stage. Lisa Dawn and the team have not just reinstated Beckett’s voice in the London theatre scene, they have created something new and truely original.

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