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.