The Royal Court starts 2014 with a very daring Samuel Beckett one-woman show. Whether this risk pays off is questionable but the boldness of the decision is admirable.
The Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby triple bill gets off to a pacey start with Not I. The theatre is plunged into darkness and all that can be seen is a disembodied mouth floating in the air, much like the Cheshire Cat's grin. What follows is a monologue so fast, so sprawling in its delivery and content that it is hard to follow what's being said. Which is the point.
The monologue mimics the fascinating and the banal information in a stream of conscious thought. Lisa Dwan's rapid, fluent delivery is extraordinary. Her flow is so fast and articulate, funny and dramatic, it'd make Eminem jealous. But after this snappy, spirited first act, the rest of the production takes on a densely sombre tone.
Footfalls is a melancholic tale of the burden of responsibility. The woman, May, drags her feet up and down in the shadows of a darkened room. Her sick mother an ever-present burden and ever-constant thought in her mind. Unable to leave, May waits to be beckoned forward to straighten the pillows or moisten the lips of her ill mother. Her past and her future all forgotten. All that exists is the here and now, and the weight of her never-ending duties.
The heavy depressed tone continues in the third piece, Rockaby. In this, a lonely woman, old before her time, sits in a rocking chair. The chair rocks back and forth in perpetual motion as the woman winds down through the last few moments of her life.
Overall, the pieces are intellectually stimulating and occasionally moving but my mind wandered too much to say they are absorbing. I know that given this is Samuel Beckett the plays are not going to have people rolling in the aisles but there is plenty of black humour in his work and perhaps more of that could have been developed to help break up the heavy depressive tone. By doing so, it might also have prevented the short running time of 50 minutes from dragging in places.
But that's not to say there isn't anything rewarding about this production.
Lisa Dwan is superb. Her versatility in delivery and tone across the three pieces, giving each character a distinctive voice, is first-class.
Walter Asmus' direction is also excellent. With such limited text, the assumption can be that this stuff is easy to direct, that it sort of throws itself together. Not at all. That great thought has gone into the design and direction is clear. Though the tone might be heavy for me, once that creative choice was made, that atmosphere is delivered all the way through with very emotive use of light and shadow, and a very sparse set.
I can't decide whether it was brave or foolish of the Royal Court to use its main stage for this very experimental production. Instinct suggests that the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs would be a more natural home for this short one-woman show. So I applaud them for taking the risk but given that tickets are up to £25, I'd be more inclined to recommend it if it were upstairs and cheaper.
The short run for this Beckett trilogy at the Royal Court is sold out but you can call the Box Office to try your luck for returns or day tickets. Alternatively a better bet might be to go when the production transfers to the Duchess Theatre in the West End in February and then on a subsequent national tour.
Royal Court Theatre, London
To January 18, 2014