Lisa Dwan is ghostly and ghastly in this extraordinary production at The MAC
The groundlings are spooked. There is an odd 'school trip' ambience in the auditorium for Lisa Dwan’s production of three Samuel Beckett plays, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby at The MAC. People chat nervously, looking anywhere but the black hole of the stage. They are whistling in the dark.
The stage is a void, the room is a void: empty and sucking, a tar-pit. The show is 55 minutes long with a three-minute break between each of the three plays, during which the house lights will not be raised.
There is a note in the programme advising patrons to seek out a member of The MAC’s front of house team 'if you feel uncomfortable sitting in total darkness' and, indeed, some poor soul does cry out for help half way through Not I. It is an intense, immersive experience, this journey into darkness.
It begins with baying and crashing, the sound of two shoes dropping. A single beam of light isolates a mouth suspended eight feet off the ground. The mouth begins to speak – a torrent of words, delivered, as per Beckett’s stage-notes, 'at the speed of thought', a worrying, incoherent babble, the glossolalia of speaking in tongues, a helium gurgle, pitched mid-way between the Wicked Witch of the West and a bleakly existential Mrs Doyle.
Dwan’s technical precision and stamina are extraordinary. It’s a stream of consciousness piece, a string of non sequiturs, but she finds the sense in it, slowly building a picture of a woman’s life from these mosaic tiles. The words fly past you with such alacrity that it’s like trying to catch the sense of a language you don’t speak, the occasional salient word jutting out, offering you something to cling to.
Equally, each time Dwan’s voice takes on a conversational tone there is a ripple of desperate laughter from the audience, some tiny crumb of comfort, some semblance of humanity. The screams are utterly terrifying.
Footfalls starts with the lonely chime of a church bell and reveals the chalk white figure of May, who pads back and forth on a bare white strip outside the bedroom of her dying mother. The play's text is the interplay between May and her mother: 'Would you like me to inject you, again?' 'Yes, but it’s too soon.' 'Would you like me to pray with you, for you, again?' 'Yes, but it’s too soon.'
It is the tag of that 'again' that describes the ritual around death, the wearing habit of our lives, where medicine becomes another agony to be overcome, where petitions to God are so much hollow cant. The repetition here is grinding, a bruxist horror, as Dwan paces metronomically back and forth across her thin bridge of light – between, of course, two immensities of darkness.
Dwan appears full figure here, white as a sheet and dressed in sheets. She is ghostly, ghastly and eerily beautiful. At one point she begins to mouth along with her mother’s words, teeth bared, and one wonders whether her mother still lives.
It is an act of possession and one that is deeply disturbing. The sensory deprivation starts to kick in around now – Dwan appears to me to be sliding sideways as though on a treadmill. I refocus and back she returns to her spot only to start listing lazily to the left again. The church bell chimes.
Rockaby starts with a cinematic jump-scare as Dwan, dressed in Victorian widow’s weeds and sat in a rocking chair that pushes in and out of shadow, cries 'More!' She repeats this throughout the piece as her own recorded voice softly intones another meditation on mortality, punctuated with words that seem to ebb and flow, drifting back into the conversation, the refrain of 'time she stopped' and 'the old rocker'.
It is a dialogue between the need to live and the equally pressing need to die. It is soporific, a lullaby lulling you into the big sleep, irresistible even as she tries to resist. No more. It is a song she has heard before, familiar enough for her to join in with the words on occasion as she dips in and out of the light; from being to nothingness and back again.
James Farncombe’s lighting design is extraordinary throughout but here it has a milky, misty quality. Coupled with the peculiar ticks in our light-deprived brains and the mellifluous urgency of Dwan’s voice, the spectacle, the experience, is unique and compelling.
This is an extraordinary production, equal parts thrilling, visceral and arm chair-clutchingly terrifying. It’s not an easy ride – it is difficult and severe – but its cold elegance is undeniable. And Lisa Dwan, at the centre of it, as Mouth, as May, as Woman in Chair, is simply astonishing. This is as bold, as brutal and as beautiful as theatre gets.
Samuel Beckett Trilogy runs in The MAC, Belfast until September 6.