Over the past 10 years, Lisa Dwan has earned a reputation as the world's foremost interpreter of the later works of Samuel Beckett.
The Irish actress has performed Not I – a challenging stream-of-consciousness monologue delivered by a mouth floating in space – far and wide, recently touring it to London and New York with two other Beckett shorts to great acclaim.
"In the Beckett trilogy, Ms. Dwan doesn't just uncover layers; she digs all the way to the void beneath them," The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote.
Canadian Stage brings Dwan to Toronto to perform Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby this month. Immediately after, she heads to the Lincoln Centre to premiere a brand-new Beckett piece called No's Knife, adapted from his Texts for Nothing.
Dwan spoke to The Globe and Mail over the phone from her home in Hampstead, England.
Not I, when Jessica Tandy first did it in 1972, was about 22 minutes long. And then your mentor, the late Billie Whitelaw, got it down to 14 minutes. Yours keeps getting shorter and shorter, and you keep breaking your record, right?
I don't pay too much attention to the speed any more. I don't really ever go more than nine minutes. It's all got to do with how connected I am to the piece – how physically well I am, how mentally rested I am.
Not I is a lot of words in a very short amount of time. How much of the play are you supposed to get on a first listen as an audience member?
As Beckett said, he wanted it to play on the nerves of the audience and not its intellect. I would urge the audience to come with open minds – and, yes, the piece is meant to go past your immediate intellect and play off your emotional capacity to understand another human being.
You've grouped Not I with Footfalls (1975) and Rockaby (1980). Why those three together?
Not I was originally performed alongside Krapp's Last Tape – and when I first did Not I, it was opposite Play. With these three together, a new journey emerges. Late Beckett fits well together – he was getting at the same thing but coming at it from other angles. He was etching and paring and distilling away at the true essence of it – of the It of it all. I think they work very beautifully as a poetic triptych.
Why start with Not I– the most well-known, and challenging, of the pieces?
Not I had to go first for technical reasons, but it also made sense for the whole evening. You wouldn't be able to do Not I after anything else. You get Not I out of the way – it packs a dramatic punch. Then, there's Footfalls: Its main note is a kind of meditation on trauma and conflict; it's a haunting. Then, Rockaby, the last, is being rocked away by memories.
Tell me about those technical requirements for Not I. How do you play a floating mouth?
I'm five-foot tall, so they've built a contraption that I stand on, so my mouth hovers eight feet above the stage. I have a very precise light that lights my lips. And, in order to stay within the realm of this very precise light, it's necessary that my head is tied into a harness. I have black makeup from my cheekbones to my chest and I have a blindfold on. I'm tapped with it's time to go. Then I go like the clappers. I suppose the urgency is part that I'm eager to get out of the fecking thing.
I heard you on Alec Baldwin's podcast talking about your disappointment with the acting roles for women.
Roles are limited for a woman, full stop – what kind of identities we can have. Nowadays, we can't age, we can't eat. We put such pressure on what a woman should be, sound like, aspire to. That's just reflected in the arts – I don't blame the arts entirely.
But then there's Beckett. You've praised him for his female characters.
Beckett's characters are more like creatures; they're more elemental. They seem to have been dead or not yet born. For a woman, particularly in Not I, to have your body removed is such a gorgeous feeling of liberation. I get to play a consciousness, I get to play a continent of consciousnesses, I get to play consciousness itself. Beckett's stretched me so much, stretched what my identity could possibly be. It does spoil you.
On the other hand, the Beckett estate has been criticized for not allowing women to do some of his best-known roles – forbidding all-female productions of Waiting for Godot, for instance. Are there male roles of his you'd like to play?
No, you know, to be honest with you. There's an awful lot going on in Beckett's work. I'm humbled every time I come across the sense behind his poeticism. My relationship with the Beckett estate has been very fertile and healthy. They've known me since I was 25. They gave me special permission to play both roles in Footfalls, which they never have before. I find them really nurturing and nourishing.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Beckett trilogy runs from Oct. 13 to Nov. 1 at Canadian Stage.