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Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Dwan’

Terry Johnson is the playwright who gave us gems like Insignificance, Hysteria & Dead Funny, and another 11 that I’ve seen. He often pays homage to comedians (Cleo Camping Emmanuelle & Dick at the NT, his tribute to the Carry On films, was another gem, as was his recent biographical piece about Ken Campbell) and sex crops up more than occasionally. He’s also a director of others’ works as well as his own. Here he is again both writer and director, which on this occasion may not have been wise.

The sex party is taking place in Alex’s house in Islington. He’s invited three couples and one single to join him and his young partner Hetty. Some he knows well, some he hardly knows, but they are all up for it, well, to one degree or another.There’s very old friend Gilly and her alpha male husband of sixteen years Jake (both new to this scene), ageing hippy Tim and his assertive wife Camilla and American ‘businessman’ Jeff and his wild Russian wife Magdalena. They’re all in the kitchen, except when sex is involved in the offstage living room. It’s too much for some participants and not enough for others. Just before the interval Lucy, a late guest, arrives. After some speculation and discussion, it’s determined she is a pre-op trans woman. In the second half she becomes the centre of attention as prejudices are revealed, people feel threatened and attitudes challenged and transform in what is a provocative change of direction by the play.

What starts as a somewhat dated sex comedy with contemporary frankness turns into a very contemporary debate about gender where the characters are initially more cautious, though it proves impossible for any of them to walk on eggshells for long. This half was certainly better, but there was so much going on it moved on from one issue to the next before the discussion had run its course, and became a bit loose and somewhat melodramatic. Some of the characters suffered by being little more than stereotypes – Tim and Magdalena – whilst others had more depth. Hetty’s Welsh accent was all over the place, with references to her mam becoming mum inconsistent. Good performances generally though, particularly from Pooya Mohseni as Lucy, who commanded everyone’s attention. I’ve only seen Lisa Dwan (Gilly) in Samuel Beckett so I’ve only really seen her mouth, face, head or torso before! She also has great presence. Tim Shortall’s kitchen is uber realistic, though my full price seat restricted my view of the right of the stage, something I should have been told and something dismissed out of hand by the theatre’s AD David Brabani. So much for 18 years of loyalty and supporter membership.

I felt the writing needed more work, and the second opinion of an independent director might have helped. Far from Johnson’s best work, but not as bad as the reviews would have you believe.

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There’s something wonderful about visiting a 70-seat underground theatre a stones throw from Piccadilly Circus, where you have to cross the stage to get to the loo, to see four world class actors, directed by the man who ran both the RSC and NT, in three Samuel Beckett plays – for a few pounds more than going to the cinema around the corner. I love this city.

Beckett wrote twenty-two stage plays, many of them one act, some as short as fifteen minutes. You don’t always (ever?) entirely understand them, but you can bask in the language and exercise your brain finding meaning. Always fascinating and intriguing, never dull, somewhat addictive. I’ve seen about two-thirds of them. Another two will come along in three weeks with four more great actors in a theatre with 997 more seats!

The first of this triple-bill is Krapps Last Tape, where a man sits at a table reading his diary of some thirty years before, digging out, listening to and occasionally commenting on the meticulously indexed reel-to-reel tapes which contain the audio record of his 40th year. Oh, and he eats bananas. I’ve been lucky enough to see John Hurt and Harold Pinter, and now James Hayes in this fascinating memory play.

In Eh Joe, a man sits on his bed in silence listening to a woman’s voice in his head, his face telling you everything you need to know about his feelings as he listens to her. You can’t take your eyes off Niall Buggy, so expressive, whilst the great Becket interpreter and scholar Lisa Dwan voices the woman. This was written for TV. I first saw it on stage with Michael Gambon in a theatre 10 times the size but watching Niall Buggy, a few feet away, his face projected live on the wall behind him, was mesmerising, a way more intimate experience. Another memory piece, looking back.

The best is saved until last. The Old Tune, a radio play adapted from a Robert Pinget stage play, where two men in their seventies meet one Sunday morning and sit on a bench reminiscing, as the noisy traffic passes by. They have clear recollections, though they often differ, a source of irritation and indignation for them and humour for the audience. Memory again, but lighter and funnier and performed to perfection by Niall Buggy as Gorman and David Threlfall as Cream, a thirty minute gem that fully justifies its move from radio to stage and will stay with me forever.

These three plays belong together as if they were written as companion pieces. Though each was originally in a different form, they were written only eight years apart in the late 50s / early 60s. Trevor Nunn stages them beautifully, with help from set and costume designer Louie Whitemore, sound designer Max Pappenheim and lighting designer David Howe.

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I’ve seen all three of these very short one-woman plays, but 31 years apart with three different actresses in three different theatres. Back in 1982, Billie Whitelaw in the UK premiere of Rockaby at the NT’s Cottesloe, in 1994 Fiona Shaw in Footfalls (diverting from Beckets strict instructions) at the Garrick and just last year Not I here at the Royal Court with tonight’s actress Lisa Dwan. Seeing all three together in an hour, with darkness and silence in between, was a very different and somewhat overwhelming experience.

In Not I you just see a mouth spouting a stream of consciousness at a manic pace. The woman is looking back on four episodes in her life. In Footfalls May is pacing (nine at a time) outside her mother’s bedroom, holding a conversation with her in between. In Rockaby an old woman sits in a chair which seems to rock of its own accord whilst we hear her recorded voice reminisce. In between, the auditorium stays in complete darkness and the audience in silence (thankfully), though there is a gentle quiet soundscape to suggest the evening continues.

It’s a trance-like occasion, where the experience predominates over the meaning. You are mesmerised by the performances, work to understand what the plays are about, laugh occasionally. There are moments of poignancy; its mysterious and highly atmospheric. It’s an experience, a unique experience. Lisa Dwan is terrific, particularly in the first play.

It’s extraordinary that these plays, written in a 7-year period 32-44 years ago can still surprise, shock, intrigue and captivate. Whatever you think of them, you have to accept that Beckett was a true original and you’ve never seen and probably never will see anything else like this.

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I had to be talked into spending over £2 per minute on Beckett’s monologue Not I, but I was very glad I did.

All you see in the pitch blackness is a mouth and all you hear is a stream of consciousness that’s hard to keep up with, but it’s poetic, musical & mesmerising – and a rather exhausting 9 minutes! Lisa Dwan’s performance is extraordinary, and when you learn at the post-show Q&A how she is blindfolded and strapped in, it’s even more impressive.

It’s the Q&A with Dwan, Beckett’s biographer and friend Jim Knowlson and retired critic Benedict Nightingale plus film of Billie Whitelaw talking about her relationship with the role and with Beckett that makes the evening an excellent experience all round and I ended up feeling I’d had reasonable value for my £20!

A rare theatrical event.

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