Lisa Dwan scored a personal triumph with her rigorously brilliant rendition of Beckett’s Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby. But whereas these works were conceived for the stage, No’s Knife is an adaptation of 13 prose pieces, Texts for Nothing, written by Beckett in the early 1950s. The result is a formidable 70-minute performance, but one where you feel Dwan and her co-creators strive to give a physical life to strange, metaphysical texts.
Dwan focuses on five of the original pieces that explore a no man’s land between life and death, between being and non-being and that are full of an anxious indeterminacy. You can read them in several ways. They may be a product of Beckett’s despair at the horrors of a war he had grimly survived. At other points, as when the speaker says, “I can’t go, I can’t stay”, they prefigure the plight of today’s stateless refugees. When Martin Esslin directed them for BBC radio in the 1970s, he saw them as “a description of schizophrenic withdrawal symptoms”. You can, in short, see them as deeply personal or profoundly political.
George Steiner possibly summed up these texts best when he wrote of their “dynamic void”. But, if nature abhors a vacuum, theatre detests a void and so Dwan, co-director Joe Murphy and designer Christopher Oram give the pieces a concrete reality. After an opening, filmic image of Dwan swimming in what might be a foetal membrane, each segment is given a specific location. At different times we see her caught in the cleft of a rocky cliff, roaming through a boulder-strewn wasteland or flying above the stage in a skeletal cage. Finally, clad in a brown slip and with muddied, bloodied legs, she comes downstage and addresses us in a fierce, white light.
Dwan’s vocal range is astonishing. She suggests a divided consciousness by switching between a soft Irish lilt and a gruff, interrogatory tone. She lingers on Beckett’s fondness for archaic words such as “arquebuse”. She vividly pinpoints key phrases that resonate in the mind: “I am alone, I alone am” haunts the consciousness only to be echoed in the climactic image of the speaker “remaining alone where I am, between two parting dreams”. Dwan uses all her technical skill and emotional power to embody a condition of being trapped in an afterlife while still breathing.
But, for all the vigour of the presentation, I still feel these texts are not inherently theatrical. Beckett was a master of form and conceived his pieces for a specific medium: it is striking how his plays are increasingly built around a single, unalterable painterly image. You can, of course, adapt them in the way that All That Fall has been successfully translated from radio to the stage and his entire theatrical oeuvre put on film. But Texts for Nothing depends essentially on our imagined vision of a state of non-being. Even when it was done on radio, Beckett insisted the actor, Patrick Magee, murmur the words rather than emphasise them. By staging it, however ingeniously, Dwan and her team give Beckett’s mysterious prose a reckless visibility.
• At the Old Vic, London, until 15 October. Box office: 0844-871 7628.