No’s Knife review – a marathon and a triumph

Old Vic, London
Lisa Dwan’s adaptation of Beckett’s 13 short prose pieces is a feat of memory, dedication and courage

There is no mystery about why Samuel Beckett’s No’s Knife at the Old Vic has not been performed before: it was not written for the stage. An adaptation of Beckett’s 13 short prose pieces Texts for Nothing (1950-52), it is now a 70-minute offering performed by the extraordinary Lisa Dwan – Irish actor and Beckett interpreter of the first rank. To make an evening out of discrete monologues is a challenge – the tension between being mesmerised and longing to escape that one often feels with Beckett more acute than ever and the mountain to climb steeper, but Dwan climbs it, in every sense.

A woman is spread-eagled on a rocky mountainside, in the way ivy might insinuate itself into stone (Christopher Oram is responsible for the bold design). To say that the woman is between a rock and a hard place would be no exaggeration. Each of the evening’s five shattering soliloquies recalls Winnie in Happy Days, up to her neck in sand. Yet the woman in the first piece is worse off even than Winnie, and less accessorised in her unsuitable brown cocktail dress. Dwan is wonderfully attentive to language: filling and emptying – her words alternately vessels and husks. She will take an adjective – “wild” – and fill it with so much yearning, it seems a world in itself. “Home” is an alarm and a destination. Sometimes her talk is cavernous, sometimes superficial. She is shrill, or she whispers, or is languorously Irish. The more garrulous her talk, the greater her loneliness seems. No one plumbs the depths as Beckett does – with the exception of Shakespeare (there are echoes of Lear here). This is a marathon – a feat of memory, dedication and courage – a triumph for Lisa Dwan and Joe Murphy, her co-director.

At the Old Vic, London until 15 October


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
No’s Knife review – Lisa Dwan excels in Beckett's strange no man's land
Dwan’s vocal range is astonishing in her adaptation of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, but the ingenious staging still struggles to give physical life to mysterious prose

Michael Billington

04, Oct, 2016 @10:49 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Endgame and Rough for Theatre II; Asking for It; Persona – review
Alan Cumming and Daniel Radcliffe head an irreverent Beckett double bill that isn’t quite dark enough

Susanah Clapp

09, Feb, 2020 @8:30 AM

Article image
The Duchess of Malfi; Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby – review
The Globe's new indoor stage is the ideal setting for Webster's macabre tragedy, writes Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp

19, Jan, 2014 @12:07 AM

Article image
Lisa Dwan: 'Narratives of nasty women spread with few facts attached'
The Irish actor on reimagining Antigone, what she learned from Billie Whitelaw, and starring in Jed Mercurio’s new crime drama

Kate Kellaway

21, Feb, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: J’Ouvert; Under Milk Wood; Happy Days – review
Notting Hill carnival and Dylan Thomas’s radio masterpiece come to the stage

Susannah Clapp

27, Jun, 2021 @9:30 AM

Article image
The Caretaker review – star turns but no terror
Compelling performances from Timothy Spall, Daniel Mays and George MacKay fail to elevate Matthew Warchus’s production of the Pinter classic

Susannah Clapp

10, Apr, 2016 @6:59 AM

Article image
A Christmas Carol review – a love song to Christmas
Rhys Ifans stars in a joyous, psychoanalytical reading of Dickens that celebrates the redeeming power of theatre

Claire Armitstead

03, Dec, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Wise Children review – Emma Rice’s joyous Angela Carter adaptation
Carter’s riotous novel about a south London theatrical dynasty bursts on to the stage in this life-enhancing show

Kate Kellaway

21, Oct, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Queen Margaret; The Village; Misty – review
Female characters roar out of the sidelines in bold new takes on familiar stories

Susannah Clapp

22, Sep, 2018 @3:00 PM

Article image
King Lear review – Glenda Jackson is magnificent
Less is more as Glenda Jackson exudes command in Deborah Warner’s fitfully brilliant production

Susannah Clapp

13, Nov, 2016 @8:00 AM