On the face of it, Beckett's "Not I" appears designed to be as indigestible as it is possible for a play to be: just eight minutes long, no other point of focus other than the floating mouth surrounded by blackness, and a galloping, demented text that is stream-of-consciousness with no obvious structure.
It is a rarely-presented piece from the repertoire of Beckett works. The Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright, novelist and writer who notably wrote "Waiting for Godot" and who died in Paris — the city where he spent most of his life — in 1989, was considered a postmodernist master of the "Theatre of the Absurd".
For actress Lisa Dwan, also Irish, the very challenging nature of the play she has performed to full houses in London, New York and now Paris was its appeal.
"This Beckett stuff goes right to the core of humanity. There's no messing around with any politeness, you're in there," she told AFP.
– 'Group hallucination' –
Directed by Walter Asmus, an early assistant to Beckett, "Not I" is grouped together with two other plays by the same author, "Footfalls" and "Rockaby", with Dwan the only person on stage for all three.
Her presence, preternatural technique, songlike voice and clear affinity with the ideas and strange, dark world of Beckett — a "genius" she says
repeatedly — make her a gifted messenger of the playwright's vision.
Those are all key attributes to obtaining the hard-to-get licence from Beckett's estate for the plays — but also necessary to interpret the author's often impenetrable texts that he never explained himself.
"'Not I' is obviously impossible to memorise. He's written it in such a way it never gets easy," Dwan said.
Then there's the physical torture involved in the role. The actress is pinned to a wooden board and her face covered in thick black make-up for the duration of "Not I", so only her mouth can be seen as the inner voice of an unbalanced old woman recounting key moments in her life but repressing one important experience.
"I'm wearing a blindfold and I have a pair of tights on my head. I can't see, hear or move," she said.
To the audience, a "group hallucination" occurs that makes the solitary mouth appear to be floating around in the darkness.
The play, "spoken at the speed of thought", is more an emotional experience than an intellectual revelation, she said — and one that affects her just as strongly as those watching.
– Sold-out shows –
At one of the shows, the audience made up of French and foreigners was rapt as it took it in, maybe not catching every word but being swept along by the energy and unpredictable flow.
"One of the things you really realise is about Beckett being a genius is when your own mind starts to behave like 'Not I' while you are trying to focus on 'Not I'," Dwan said.
The actress, whose beautiful blonde looks have earned her far easier but far less challenging roles in television and cinema, has been playing the demanding "Not I" several times since 2005 to full houses, mostly in London where she will return for another performance in June.
She is in esteemed company, succeeding such stars as Jessica Tandy, Julianne Moore and Billie Whitelaw — a British actress Beckett himself
coached in the part — in the role.
Through Edward Beckett, the playwright's nephew and executor of his estate, Dwan met Whitelaw, who gave valuable pointers on how to bring the text to life.
"We greeted each other like two war veterans," Dwan said. "I hadn't met anyone who had played the role. It's such a weird, difficult thing to occupy that mental space, you're immediately like sisters; we spoke for hours and hours of intimate things."
Whitelaw notably told Dwan to let out all the mad energy bubbling away as the actress performs, explaining Beckett "didn't want an actor to hide her behind her voice, he didn't want the fake stuff, he wanted the real stuff".
And so Dwan delves into her past, her painful experiences. "The kind of earthly song I'm singing in my nervous system is what is being communicated to the audience."