Lisa Dwan has been performing Samuel Beckett since 2005, beginning with a production of Not I at Battersea Arts Centre in London, directed by Natalie Abrahami. Famed Beckett interpreter Billie Whitelaw, who originated the piece under Beckett’s supervision, directed Dwan in Not I at the Southbank Centre in 2009. This week (April 13–17) Dwan will perform The Beckett Trilogy: Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby, at New York University’s Skirball Center, for the last time.
In 2015, Dwan delivered a speech about her work on the piece with Whitelaw at the Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in Ireland. It has been excerpted with permission.
I always wanted Billie Whitelaw to know beyond any doubt, particularly toward the end of her life, how impactful her relationship and her achievements with the work of Samuel Beckett were.
How relevant this body of work still is. How relevant she still is, especially when other actresses (myself included) were taking on these roles, encroaching on the very turf that she formed and was famed for. But perhaps I need not have been so fretful.
“Oh, I know, darling,” she often told me. “You see, I had him. I had him.”
So what was it…to have him? And for those of us who never will, how can we dare to carry on performing these works? Can we, without him sitting opposite us, really honor them, make them relevant? Resonate? Pierce?
How can we really know exactly what he intended? And if so, how can be sure those intentions would be still relevant and continue to resonate today?
San Quentin actor Larry Held once told me, “He often bought new and random choices, changed and altered things easily. He was open to new things, malleable, and never as rigid as people think.”
Billie always prided herself on the fact that she didn’t ask him anything about his work. She was an instinctive, untrained, guttural actress, which is precisely why Beckett loved her.
She often said publicly, “I’m not a proper actress. I’m a woman who happens to act. I offered myself to him as an instrument, or a tool for his work.”
But she also said, in an interview with BBC’s Anthony Claire, “I still have no idea who myself really is.” In response to a director once telling her to “just be yourself,” She said, “There are so many selves. I don’t know who the real self is.”
So what then did she offer up to Beckett?
I can see her now staring at me across her kitchen table with her hand over her diaphragm: “My center, I gave him the whole of my gut.”
But Billie was a very rare breed. She had an uncomplicated emotional immediacy. When Billie spoke, she did so with the arresting gravitas that only someone of profound integrity can. She never minced her words, she was direct, never suffering fools, but she was also disarmingly open, extremely generous, and often seemed so emotionally vulnerable, as someone who seemed to live life without their skin on. In other words, she was a Northerner.
How do those of us who dare to follow in her footsteps access this “center” of which she speaks? And how can we ensure that in an earnest attempt to access our gut we don’t veer off course and end up indulging in some scatological, foul-smelling disaster?
Despite the heritage of drama schools and classical training in the British Isles, in the day-to-day professional world on the whole I’ve found there to an unhelpful air of self-depreciation and false modestly around the actual craft of acting. And some actors, whilst carrying around their voices like trophies, are themselves the chief culprits for perpetuating this myth of, “Oh darling, just say your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.”
I don’t buy it.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it is that simple.
David Hare was apparently directing Michael Gambon on a film once, and after several takes of one particular intense scene said to him, “There! That’s it! What were you thinking just there?”
To which Gambon turned to him and said, “Lunch?”
And if it is that simple, is working with Samuel Beckett the same thing?
I, like Billie, am an untrained actress. In fact I spent my early life and career as a ballet dancer. But after an injury, I found myself suddenly acting professionally in my late teens. And learning on the job.
But my very first encounter with Beckett was when I was at home alone in Athlone [Ireland] around 12 years of age. The BBC was showing Eh Joe late one night, and I suddenly walked into a room to find a haunted man’s face, listening to a voice so penetrating, so relentless, and so extremely terrifying, yet I couldn’t look away. What was this alchemy that chilled me to the core? How could something so spare and simple touch and summon such a terror? Even if I never understood it, why have I never forgotten it?
In Dublin in 2000, the Gate Theatre and Channel Four Films were committing all of Beckett’s plays to film. The project exposed me for the first time to the range and body of Beckett’s theatrical work and his world. They were my landscape and my bar when I first came to theatre.
I was at the time working on a TV series with the actor Stephen Brennan, who was taking part in two of the productions: Godot, where he played one of the best Luckys I’ve ever seen, and I assisted him one day when he was working on the solo A Piece of Monologue.
One day, driving to work, Stephen told me about Not I. As we paused at the lights on Baggot Street Bridge, he turned to me and described in detail how a disembodied mouth onstage spat out a stream of consciousness at breakneck speed, even though the mouth (which was the only thing visible onstage) was completely locked still. Due to the sensory deprivation of an entirely blackened theatre, those lips appeared to float or osculate across the auditorium. He also told me he knew someone who had gone mad trying to learn it.
Five years passed, and I returned to my flat in London one day to find the most unusual script I’d ever seen on my floor, with a date and time for an audition the following week. The 10 or so pages looked exactly like sheet music. Each phrase or word was separated with three dots and sometimes just two dots and a dash.
I remember I took a massive intake of breath. “Oh God…Beckett.” And immediately tensed. I felt I would need to dig deep and root out some kind of mental pickaxe to tackle this impenetrable intellectual mountain. Or take the short cut and call my brother, who is an English professor. But my brother thankfully didn’t return my calls that day. And so, with pressure mounting for the audition, I just sat down alone and read.
And there it was, the inside of my mind shamelessly splayed open on the page. I saw waves of memory, corrections, interruptions, panic. I heard my isolation, my pain. “She’ll be purged”; the hilarity of it, “Haaah…God! Haaaa…the judgement.” “Guilty or not guilty”; parochialism from the streets of Athlone. “No sooner buttoned up his breeches.” Christian pieties that made me think of the nuns. “God is love”; my mother’s “tender mercies.”
I heard home.
It felt so close, so visceral, so terrifying, and so personal. And yet I felt propelled along by an inherent rhythm which seemed to be forcing me to speak these voices at speed.
I say voices because I didn’t just hear one stream of consciousness, but a waterfall, a cacophony of sounds. He seemed to be taking me right inside the emotions themselves.
But then I worried that surely I must be missing something. Because everything I had heard about Beckett up to that point was purely intellectual, and I was convinced that I was missing some important layer or something; it couldn’t be just so immediate, so guttural, so visceral, so personal like this…could it?
At the audition, the director’s only note was that Beckett wanted this text to “play on the nerves of the audience and not the intellect,” which is why he wanted it spoken at the “speed of thought.” I thought then that I might be onto something.
I had this confirmed one day in rehearsals in the middle of Battersea Park.
One of the hardest aspects of Not I is the strain it takes on your memory. To be able to recall this tricksy, fragmented text at such speed demands athletic mental discipline.
My director took me one day to the open space in Battersea Park to sit in the grass so that I could develop some sensory memory connections in the text. I still use these very connections today and subconsciously clutch for grass every time I get to, “Back in the field…morning sun…April…sink face down in the grass…nothing but the larks…so on…grabbing at the straw…straining to hear…the odd word…make some sense of it…whole body like gone…but the mouth…like maddened…and can’t stop…no stopping it. Something she…something…she had to…what…who…no…she!”
When I lifted my eye mask at the end of the performance, I saw that I had gathered an audience of park bench drunks who stood there, dumbfounded, gripping their cans of cider—the very substance they were using to drown these voices. We looked at each other, eye to eye in total acknowledgment.
Since then I’ve performed it for my nieces, who were 7 and 12 at the time, who totally understood it. I’ve performed it in Paris and Hong Kong in English, where I’ve seen show reports afterwards that many of the audience left in tears.
I’ve performed it for people who’ve never heard of Beckett or have never been to the theatre, and yet I’ve witnessed time and time again how this deep universal poetic truth speaks directly to us and about us.
Natalie Abrahami had the foresight to ban any mention of Billie 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 [of Not I] at the Royal Court in London still resonates over 40 years on. And yet it was vital for me not to let that performance affect mine.
I would need to find my own way to my center.
The piece would need to come directly from within me. To this day, I have never seen any version of the piece performed in the theatre. My only image of it is what Stephen Brennan painted on my imagination back on Baggot Street Bridge all those years ago.
But I have watched the film version of Billie’s, directed by Beckett in 1977, the year I was born.
For all its emotional immediacy, this is highly disciplined work. I had to arrest each phrase and lock it to something deeply personal. And with such speed. I had to exercise not only extreme technical precision but huge emotional clarity. Every single thought has to be locked to something real and concrete.
Natalie adherence to Beckett’s note, “Don’t act,” and his other mantra, “No color,” helped me the most in the beginning to understand this highly disciplined work.Like most actors I’m emotionally malleable. She suppressed my urges to spring from his lean lines. It reminded me of my old ballet teacher, who winced when overzealous or “flashy” dancers abandoned the fierce discipline of their art in the search of spectacle. In fact, I now approach all his work predominantly as a dancer, first allowing all the elements of the poetry to play itself out, the visuals, the rhythmics, the sensor stimulus—this is vast holistic work that simply will not be served from the neck up.
Beckett requires us to offer up our entire nervous systems. So when I can simply let the words play their music out on my whole being, only then can I get out of my own way and begin to approach what I believe he was aiming for.
Few knew what it is to have your entire nervous system splayed open like that. Few know what it is to be suspended in that darkness, let alone the hideous difficulty of learning a text such as Not I. And to go on to perform one of the most difficult pieces ever devised. But there is one. One who knew more than most.
I finally met Billie Whitelaw in 2006 a few months after my first performance of Not I in London. [Samuel Beckett’s nephew] Edward Beckett attended one those performances, and over a Guinness with me afterwards suggested it might be finally worthwhile to meet her “now that I’d found my own way.”
And as luck would have it, a few weeks after that the BBC put us in touch for an in-conversation piece about the role. Up until that point neither of us had ever met anyone else who had played Not I, and we greeted each other like two shell-shocked war veterans.
We immediately swapped our trench stories. I told her how I strapped my head to the banisters at home and babbled away for hours, training my mouth and diaphragm to speak at the speed of thought without moving a millimeter.
Billie’s head, by contrast, had been strapped to a dentist’s chair, where once she collapsed during rehearsals and Sam rushed over to her saying, “Billie, Billie, what have I done to you? What have I done?!”
Coming to, she replied, “I really don’t know how to answer that, Sam.”
“Never mind,” he said. “Back you go.”
“But I would have walked on glass for that man,” Billie admitted.
She also admitted how she never felt she quite recovered from that role and that none of his other plays, including the ones he wrote for her—Rockaby and Footfalls—had taken a toll quite like Not I. “I lost a piece of me in there and it never got any easier,” she told me.
And in 1977, she declared, “I will not play that role again; I cannot; if I do then I shall go mad.”
Her neurologist at the time also told her that if she did attempt to do it again, she was going to have Billie sectioned.
We agreed the hardest element of all—aside, of course, from the neck strain, the hernias, the stroke-inducing stress of it, and the development of pelican-like jowls for spit collection, since there is no time to swallow—is attempting to control and suppress one’s own internal Not I. In the nightly terror that the piece always produces, the thoughts, like vultures, hover above his lean lines.
A year after our first meeting I received a call out of the blue from Billie: “I want to give you his notes. I have to give you his notes.”
Now I had no idea that I would ever play this role again, so I wasn’t quite sure what had me standing in Billie’s kitchen later that afternoon. I thought she might take out and dust off an old rehearsal manuscript, but instead she told me to sit down at the table and “Begin!” As I started speaking she sat directly opposite and began waving her hand, conducting me. “Ta..ta..ta..tah…Ta..ta..ta..tah.”
She later told me that this is exactly what Beckett had done to her, across her kitchen table.
In 2009 I was invited to perform Not I as a standalone piece in the South Bank Centre. So Billie and I stepped up our sessions. It was during that time Billie provided me with several keys to unlock Beckett. Or rather unlock parts of me that I could make available to Beckett.
Not once, not even for an instant, did she try to impose her own interpretation, give me the choices or the emotional locations she used. She was very conscious that she didn’t want to perpetuate a “Beckettian” style of acting. Or replicate some museum piece.
Billie lifted the lid on all of his well-worn notes, especially, “Don’t act. No color.” She saw how I strained to hold back the tide of the Irish voices, the sounds, and the effect of what the very notion of “home” produced in me. She saw that I was putting on an artificial monotone to try and disguise these urges that seemed to be springing from the lines. Billie gave me permission to follow my instincts and said, “Bring all that in; it has to come from you.”
I understood then that Beckett didn’t want the actor’s craft. But he did want emotion; only he wanted all of it—the real stuff, the guts—not some polished fool’s gold.
“I can’t read or write music,” Billie said. “But if I were a musician, I’d have put a crotchet here instead of a quaver.” She dug into all the technical aids she used and recalled what Beckett had told her. “If the word has several syllables, use them. Ev-er-y-thing. No-thing.’ Springboard off the alteration.”
“But the brain, but the brain!”
“Use the repetition! Go back to the same thought!
I was also worried I was going too fast at the time, as already I was going almost twice as fast as Billie used to. “Rubbish,” she said. “He always to told me, ‘Billie, you cannot go fast enough.’”
I realized over the years that it’s not about speed, even though he wanted it spoken at the speed of thought. It’s more to do with location of this idea. He wants us to take him right to our edge. It’s the sound and sense of our edge he’s after.
On opening week, Billie was admitted to hospital and never returned home. On the morning of opening night, when I phoned her to see how she was, she told me to come by. “Sit down,” she said when I arrived. And “begin.” And there from her hospital bed, she began conducting me.
Without Billie, I was left with no choice but to produce the work myself. And over the years that have followed since, I’ve realized that move has been my saving grace. Traveling though the darkness of the work, it forces me to keep one eye open and maintain a healthy perspective.
That and Billie’s parting Northern wisdom: “Just get on with it.”