The Royal Court is staging three of Samuel Beckett’s one-act plays within an hour, straight through, without an interval. It is a gruelling experience for actor and audience alike.Billie Whitelaw who created all three of these interior monologues brilliantly, has given a vivid and invaluable account of what it was like to work with Beckett in her autobiography, Billie Whitelaw Who He?
Beckett was very exacting about how he wanted his plays performed and his detailed stage directions, with its attention to pauses, silences, slowness and lighting, are as important as the actual intonation of the words.
When Whitelaw complained that audiences might get bored, he retorted: “Bore them to death. Bore the pants off them!” Forty years on, Lisa Dwan is not afraid to do exactly that.
The only thing the audience sees in Not I is an illuminated female mouth, eight feet above the stage. Everything else is blacked out. A woman cannot stop speaking. A torrent of words pours out of her.
Beckett said he wanted the text to be said at “the speed of thought” even if it meant loss of intelligibility. He didn’t want any emotion and colouring. The monologue, short and concentrated, stark and anguished, is horrendously difficult to learn and say.
In Footfalls a woman paces up and down a narrow strip of light, representing a landing. She talks to her bedridden mother who is in a bedroom off-stage. She has wasted a lifetime looking after her.
The all-important pacing up and down gets slower and slower until she disappears. Beckett said the woman “exists in that ghostly spiritual half-way between living and not living” and he wanted her voice to be “from beyond the grave.”
Rockaby, an elegiac lullaby, is written in four movements. At the close of day, a lonely woman, prematurely old, sits in a darkened room in a rocking chair.
She sways rhythmically to and fro to her pre-recorded voice, which repeats the same lines over and over again. Slowly going out of her mind, she rocks away her life until she dies.
This Beckett triple bill is absolutely only for Beckett aficionados. It’s at the Royal Court until January 18 and then transfers to Duchess Theatre on February 3 until February 15.
by Robert Tanitch, Mature Times theatre reviewer