No’s Knife – Abbey Theatre – Review by P. McGovern
Until Saturday, 17 June 2017 on the Abbey Stage
No’s Knife is adapted by its performer/co-director Lisa Dwan from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing. Like the original texts on which it is based, the show makes no concession to explanation, context or narrative. Instead it rattles the bones of Beckett’s enduring, obsessive themes such as time, ageing and death; displacement and lostness; the unknowable and the human impulse to break through its shield, the petty distractions that fill our heads as we struggle to ‘go on’ – much of it well summed up in “what are we doing here, that is the question”, so fresh in the mind from Garry Hynes’s sublime production Waiting For Godot on the same stage a few weeks ago.
It has been speculated that these desolate pieces, written by Beckett just a few years after the end of WW ll, were influenced by his near escape from the Gestapo while working with the French Resistance, by the horrors of the death camps and mass genocide. There is hardly a glimmer of humour to alleviate the darkness. Beckett described the pieces as “the afterbirth” of his three novels. In Dwan’s performance they seem just as much a foreshadowing of plays such as Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape and Waiting for Godot. The parallel with Winnie’s dilemma in Happy Days is suggested immediately with Dwan, having submerged into the chambers of the sea, now injured and wedged between rocks high above the stage in a kind of Limbo, barely able to move. The resonance with Godot is strong: “They give birth astride the grave…”. A key difference perhaps is that where Godot has warmth and humanity, No’s Knife is a dense amalgam of texts with abstract ideas and observations on the human condition, bouncing around and jostling each other aside in their frantic attempt to register, to be heard out there in the void. “No need of a story, a story is not compulsory”, we are told. We know where we stand: we are up to our oxters in Beckett-land, not a signpost or signal in sight. Ah well, we must go on . . . Yes, let’s go …
The fact that the texts themselves are not complete, but isolated pieces of individual writing, without identifiable characters or any trace of dramatic structure, poses significant challenges for audiences, not to mention the performer. Dwan rises to the challenge triumphantly. Physically and vocally she is astounding, sensitive, sinuous and muscular. Her anguished whispers reach the back seats. Visceral, primal screams of pent-up frustration and rage electrify the theatre. Every line or phrase, however disconnected on the page, is invested with emotional weight. Even though the texts reject any attempt to extract an overall coherent meaning, the performer’s movement and stillness fill in a lot of gaps. That many gaps can never be filled is a large part of the author’s intention.
Christopher Oram’s stage design is superb. From the opening Happy Days-like set of the first part, the scene changes to a spooky, mist-covered, blackened, desolate landscape of stunted tree stumps and squelchy bog. The third section is delivered from a swing-like cage suspended high above the stage, superficially free, but in fact cribbed, confined. Better be careful: “no symbols where none intended”, as the man himself warns. In the final section all visual reference points and props are cast aside as the actor comes down the apron walkway and, pointing towards the abyss of the audience saying “that’s where I go, if I could go, that’s who I would be if I could be…”, answering the questions raised at the start of part three.
Sound design by Mic Pool enhances the performance greatly, from the ambivalent breathing in the dark (last breaths of the dying?), the sounds heard in the womb or simply the ebb-and-flow of the tides of time? An occasional echo in surround sound points our imagination towards the “out there”. Perhaps Pool might be able to devise a means to electrocute members of the audience who, regardless of repeated requests, continue their mindless use of phones in virtually every performance in Dublin theatres, including this show, just as during several performances of Godot. If that option cannot pass the Health & Safety watchdogs, could we at least have a stock erected outside theatres with a plentiful supply of rotten fruit to pelt offenders after the performances they interrupt? Oh, and yes, a lifetime ban from further attendance.
No’s Knife is a show that demands to be taken on its own terms, making no concession to entertainment or distraction. Dwan’s performance is exceptional and will reward anyone with an interest in Beckett’s work or with exciting theatre making.
Tim van ‘t Hof – Lighting Designer
Lisa Dwan – Performer and Co-Director
Joe Murphy – Original Co-Director
Christopher Oram – Designer
Hugh Vanstone – Lighting
Mic Pool – Sound
Andrzej Goulding – Video
Lucy Hind – Movement