Hay Festival Kells Reflections: Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s impossible play

The first ever Hay Festival Kells is already a receding memory – but what a memory. Massive congratulations to all involved in putting together a spectacular three days in the Co Meath town.

I live a hen’s race from Kells, but I feel duty-bound to insist that such proximity brings no bias here. By any measure this was a phenomenal success, and one which, I can only hope, will become a regular part of the Irish summer calendar for many a year to come.

This is the first of a couple of posts I’m planning reflecting on last weekend’s events. I also attended the John Banville interview and the poetry reading by Frank McGuinness and Nerys Williams, so I’ll offer my thoughts on those separately.

Lisa Dwan Not I Samuel BeckettIt was a privilege, on the first day of the first ever Hay Festival to take place in Ireland, to share a pitch-black room with a couple of hundred others and the brightly lit mouth of Lisa Dwan.

It’s not often that something this vibrant happens in rural Co Meath. For it to happen before the early evening news, as just one small part of an overall programme, underlines the breadth of the ambition of the Hay Festival on its welcome first foray into Ireland.

“Mouth”, the only character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Not I”, has been described as the most difficult role in all of theatre, and during ten frantic minutes in Kells it was easy to see why.

Not having seen “Not I” before – the extent of my exposure was some pre-performance reading outlining Beckett’s fury when Jessica Tandy, the first actress to perform the role in 1972, took a leisurely 22 minutes to run through the script.

Beckett’s muse Billie Whitelaw subsequently knocked that back to a distinctly more rapidfire 14 minutes, but Dwan has continued the constriction by reducing the time to less than 10 minutes, which increases the verbal dexterity required.

The show included an entertaining and insightful video transmission of Whitelaw’s recollections of working with Beckett. Sample: “He wrote me a note to say, ‘On page eight, six lines down, remove a dot. It should be two dots instead of three.’”

Such was the precision of Beckett’s notes and stage direction that, as Dwan said during the Q&A with Telegraph journalist Liz Hunt which followed this performance, it is extraordinarily difficult for a director to direct Beckett. And that difficulty is magnified to an extreme level in “Not I”, in which the only lit element in an expanse of darkness (Emergency exit lights? Forget it…) is a mouth, a mouth that utters a virtually incomprehensible stream of consciousness. And also a mouth suspended exactly eight feet above the stage.

The speed of expression is so incredibly rapid that it’s almost impossible, on first experience at any rate, to comprehend anything but occasional words and turns of phrase.

It is, as Dwan wrote in the festival-accompanying leaflet published by The Telegraph, as close to unlearnable as any role in theatre can be, and one that leaves her body in spasm throughout the performance as she engages in the unwinnable battle of trying to speak at the speed of thought. All without acting. (Another Beckett note.)

The melody shines through, as does deep admiration for the performance, and while one can’t help regretting that it’s difficult to make any satisfying sense of it all, then life is a bit like that too.

As Whitelaw says about Beckett, he had absolute and unimpeachable integrity. Avoiding cosy characters or setpieces did not go far enough. In treating of the world, he had to go all the way, instilling the inherent ridiculousness of the human experience. Dwan says her ambition is to fulfil this quest. “I’m not there yet,” she says. She admits that it’s unlikely she ever will be, but then again none of this is about success.

She can try again, fail again, fail better, and that’s the best any of us can do.

Indeed, art and failure was another theme in the Banville hour, about which more later…

Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the text of “Not I”, as I was before last Friday, it’s over here.


4 thoughts on “Hay Festival Kells Reflections: Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s impossible play

  1. This sounds great! I didn’t make it down to the festival but thankfully your blog gives a good idea of what it was like! I have to admit I’m not familiar with ‘Not I’ so I look forward to reading your link. It sounds like it was a really good performance from Lisa Dwan though.
    The next big literary event I’ll be going to is the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh later this month, which I’m really looking forward to… and I’ll be blogging about that for those who don’t make it over!

    1. Thanks Claire.

      I must admit I don’t know much about the John Hewitt Summer School – I’ll look into it.

      I think it was you who pointed me in the direction of the Stendhal Festival? I really like the look of the family camping tickets…


  2. This sounds great, I’m not familiar with this particular work but I’m definitely going to check it out down here in Sydney. Looking forward to hearing about the John Banville interview too.

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