Samuel Beckett's Not I has to be seen in a theatre to be understood. The play takes the form of a nine-minute monologue performed by a disembodied mouth babbling in the darkness. The words, when spoken as quickly as Lisa Dwan does at the Court, are almost impossible to follow. Instead you take in the image and the whole experience. That experience is very emotional, perhaps extremely so. Oddly, I find myself watching this play physically aware of my spectatorship. Watching it I feel my skin crawling and a sense of sympathetic physical tension taking me over. Ironically, this play performed only by a mouth is a full-body experience.
I first saw Not I when I was 17 or 18, I think, at a study day about Samuel Beckett at the University of Birmingham, I think, or it may have been Reading. I'm fairly sure it was a student performer and there were presentations by James Knowlson and Gerry McCarthy about Beckett's work; there was, I vaguely recall, an extract from Godot too. I'd read Not I, as a bit of a Beckettophile teenager, but nothing really prepared me for the effect of seeing it live. First, the mouth is tiny; of course, it's a mouth. And even in a darkened theatre, unless you're very near, it denatures quickly, not looking much like a mouth, but variously, a pulsing point of light, a cat's eye; at moments it seemed to me that it has rotated 90 degrees and the jaws were moving sideways; throughout, the mouth seemed to drift within the proscenium, even though I knew that was not possible. The effect was exhilarating and nightmarish. When I described it to a friend that evening, he said I sounded like I'd been on a ghost train.
I directed the play at university. Liz Harris played the part and talking to her about it was extraordinarily interesting. I'd sort of thought of Beckett as a bit cruel to his actors, making them crouch (not sit or stand) in an urn for Play, burying them in sand up to their waist and then neck in Happy Days, and, in Not I, placing you high above a stage, head braced in one position forced to repeat a nine-minute text at terrifying speed. It has always stayed with me that when I mentioned this thought to Liz, she replied: 'oh no, I think he's very kind to his actors. There's a short series of screams that he gives us in Not I and when I get to that bit I always say "thank you, Sam' because without being able to scream, to let out the tension, Not I would be unbearable to do'. In fact, no one writes for actors like Beckett. Unlike most playwrights he writes for actors as bodies, not just mouths.
One of the things that strikes me is the way he aligns the play with the performance situation very closely. In Happy Days, Winnie is buried up to her waist in sand which is rising to engulf her but seems gaily unconcerned, perhaps even deliberately unaware of this awful situation. She distracts herself from her gradual annihilation with her memories expressed in repeated motifs ('what is that unforgettable line') and the contents of her handbag (including a revolver which it never occurs to her to use on herself). The actress, one might say, is also in a rather awful situation, having to handle a two-hour monologue virtually single-handed (her husband is on stage but not visible to the actress, and providing little significant interaction). The fear, I suppose, is of getting lost in the text, forgetting your lines, drying. Buried in that sand, there would be nothing to do but face the embarrassed stares of the audience. In other words, there is a precise alignment of the character, distracting herself from her predicament with props and catchphrases and the actor doing exactly the same. In Beckett's production notebooks for his own 1979 production he itemises all of the props and repeated verbal motifs, making it very clear how deliberately he reduces all of that in the second half, leaving the actress, buried up to her neck, facing her fear.
The tale that Mouth seems to be telling in Not I is about a woman, abandoned by her parents when young, lived a fairly uneventful - certainly rather silent - life until the age of 70 when, all of a sudden, while walking in a field, everything went dark; she could hear buzzing and was aware of a light; and she hears a voice and realises it is her own, a ceaseless babbling stream of language, and she begins to think she has being required to tell something but has no idea what. When an unseen interlocutor suggests that this woman is mouth herself she aggressively denies it in a way that only confirms that this is indeed her own story.
But it's also, in many respects, the actress's own story. She too is sitting in the dark, babbling incoherently, and, if you perform it at the speed that Beckett asked Billie Whitelaw to do in his own production, the lines cannot be individually and consciously produced, but must be repeated from deep in the memory, bypassing, in a sense, conscious control. The play enacts its own experiment in trying to escape responsibility for one's own consciousness. The actress can get to a point of disengagement from the text, the brain just observing the mouth repeating it. If the actor feels they have to take conscious responsibility for the text, that may well get in the way of the performance and she'll dry. The actress, too, has reason to wish that the mouth that is speaking is Not I. And because of the way the mouth will be illuminated, she will be aware of a light near her, a stage lantern that will be faintly buzzing.
Not I is, on one level, incomprehensible in performance. That is to say, its total effect is rich and complex but the detail of the lines will mostly be lost in the onrush of words. One catches snatches: 'merciful ... (brief laugh) ... God' 'old black shopping bag' 'lips... cheeks ... jaws ... tongue' 'tears presumably ... hers presumably' 'dull roar like falls' 'always winter some strange reason' 'start pouring it out ... steady stream ... mad stuff ... half the vowels wrong ... no one could follow' are some of the shards that embedded themselves in me this time. But the story is unlikely to be registered; it's the image, the sense of a person denying herself that we experience. The sheer difficulty of the task adds to the tension in the actress's voice that heightens the emotional intensity of the performance. Reciprocally, we appreciate the difficulty of the task which produces a certain tension in us. This tension is given focus and a certain existential dread because the image is so nightmarish: what is it? a brutally dissected bodily organ? a vagina dentata? an insane fellatrix? a voice of your conscience? (One tiny footnote: Not I opened at the Royal Court in January 1973; six months later, in the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, came the premiere of The Rocky Horror Show; when Richard O'Brien came to film that show, he opens with a disembodied mouth singing the opening song [pictured]. Presumably not a coincidence? There are earlier precedents for the image, of course, including Dalí's Mae West Lips Sofa in 1937 or even John Pasche's 1970 Rolling Stones logo, but I'll bet Not I was the source.)
Lisa Dwan's performance is precise, beautiful and, surprisingly, funny. She gives it a much warmer sense of character than I've seen before, imbuing, for example, the location of Mouth's sudden change, Croker's Acres, with charm rather than the fury that Billie Whitelaw offered. This diminishes slightly the sense of the play as an experiment about how we might exist without consciousness, but it does allow us to enter into the world of the play with great generosity. Billie Whitelaw's performance was, by all accounts, astonishing but such a mindfuck that she got Big Sam to let her film it so that she would never have to do it again. The resulting film of Not I is just great and worth watching on a proper TV because at some point it will occur to you, even more nightmarishly, that your television has got a mouth. It reproduces some aspects of the theatre experience in that you oscillate between horrified experience of the overall image and a kind of horrified fascination with the mouth as an organ, Whitelaw's lips expanding, contracting, changing shape, several times a second and, at one moment, a blob of spittle forming on the lips (no time to lick, even) which then drops visibly onto the chin. It's a performance and a play that both seeks to escape the physical and shows us imprisoned by it; it also wants to escape consciousness but is imprisoned by it.
It's on at the Royal Court now, alongside a sepulchral Footfalls and surprisingly sad and compassionate Rockaby. Go go go.