Paris gets teeth around disembodied mouth act

In a pitch-black theatre, a disembodied mouth spews Samuel Beckett in a breathless, non-stop monologue over a Paris theatre audience, in English, without subtitles.

Paris gets teeth around disembodied mouth act
Screenshot from the performance.
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."


Top Paris theatre reopens as Covid occupy movement ends

French actors, stage technicians and other members of the performing arts ended a more-than-two-month occupation of the famous Odéon theatre in Paris on Sunday, allowing the show to go on after this week's easing of Covid-19 curbs.

Top Paris theatre reopens as Covid occupy movement ends
A picture taken on January 26, 2011 in Paris shows the facade of the Odéon theatre. LOIC VENANCE / AFP

The protesters took down the banners they had slung across the facade of the venue in the Left Bank as they left at dawn, leaving just one inscribed “See you soon”.

“We’re reopening!,” theatre director Stéphane Braunschweig exclaimed on the venue’s website, adding that it was “a relief and a great joy to be able to finally celebrate the reunion of the artists with the public.”

The Odéon, one of France’s six national theatres, was one of around 100 venues that were occupied in recent weeks by people working in arts and entertainment.

The protesters are demanding that the government extend a special Covid relief programme for “intermittents” — performers, musicians, technicians and other people who live from contract to contract in arts and entertainment.

READ ALSO: Protesters occupy French theatres to demand an end to closure of cultural spaces

With theatres shut since October due to the pandemic, the occupations had gone largely unnoticed by the general public until this week when cultural venues were finally cleared to reopen.

The Odéon, which was inaugurated by Marie-Antoinette in 1782, had planned to mark the reopening in style, by staging Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece “The Glass Menagerie”, with cinema star Isabelle Huppert as a former southern belle mourning the comforts of her youth.

But the protests scuppered the first five performances, with management saying the venue was blocked — a claim the protesters denied.

“What we wanted was for it (the performance) to go ahead, along with an occupation allowing us to speak out and hang our banners. We don’t want to stop the show,” Denis Gravouil, head of the performing arts chapter of the militant CGT union, said on Sunday.

Two other major theatres — the Colline theatre in eastern Paris and the National Theatre of Strasbourg — have also been affected by the protests.
France has one of the world’s most generous support systems for self-employed people in the arts and media, providing unemployment benefit to those who can prove they have worked at least 507 hours over the past 12 months.

But with venues closed for nearly seven months, and strict capacity limits imposed on those that reopened this week, the “intermittents” complained they could not make up their hours.

The government had already extended a year-long deadline for them to return to work by four months.

The “intermittents” are pushing for a year-long extension instead.