REVIEW | Not I, Footfalls Rockaby

Lisa Dwan in action.

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby ★★★★½
By Samuel Beckett
Royal Court Theatre
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre | Review by David Zampatti

Departing Perth International Arts Festival director Jonathan Holloway will be remembered for truckloads of feathers and a couple of big puppets. He’s a big-statement kind of guy.

Intriguingly, though, his most consistent passion has been different. In three of his four festivals he has brought us solo performances by that most daunting of playwrights, Samuel Beckett.

In 2013, Barry McGovern’s performance of selections from Beckett’s short novel, Watt, was exemplary storytelling; last year, Robert Wilson’s idiosyncratic, infuriating Krapp’s Last Tape, was exemplary self-indulgence.

This year’s Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby — three short pieces performed by Irish actor Lisa Dwan — is exemplary theatre.

It is an intense, acutely moving experience.

Not for everyone, perhaps. Certainly not for the woman behind me, who celebrated its conclusion with a hissed “Thank God for that”. (She had been whispering, not always quietly, to her companion throughout and needs to take a good, hard look at herself.)

That would be difficult, admittedly, in the STC Studio, which was in pitch blackness for Not I, a 10-minute tongue-twister torn from a mouth that is all you can see in the dark. Who could imagine we could be so tiny, or the darkness so vast?

So ferocious is the verbal assault that we have cognitive, as well as sensory, deprivation. Words, phrases and the shreds of a story seem absorbed through our nerve endings rather than our minds, exactly as Beckett said he wanted. It’s an incredible performance (the details of how Dwan is immobilised to perform the piece read like instructions for waterboarding).

Calm returns in Footfalls, though it’s the peacefulness of a death notice. A middle-aged woman, May, paces a rectangle of sickly, powdery light, exactly 9m long, which grows fainter, weaker, as she does. It’s the corridor outside her mother’s, room, perhaps. They have a broken conversation, shot through with grief and grief to come. May wants to help her mother but her reply, “Yes, but it is too soon”, comes from the lip of the grave.

The interplay of live and recorded voice here is wonderful (the work of sound designer David McSeveney), the control of director Walter Asmus patient and faultless, and the artistry of Dwan astonishing.

Rockaby is the most still, most purely poetic of the pieces. Dwan’s pre-recorded voice intones a soft, measured chant as a woman sits, stock still, in a rocking chair. The actor speaks only three phrases live: “time she stopped”; “living soul”; “rock her off”; plus the command “more”. Movement is simulated by changes in light (James Farncombe’s superlative light design is critical to all three pieces) as the woman, literally, rocks herself to death.

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby is a dark diamond in the heart of our Festival season. Its stillness and silence are eloquent among the bells and whistles.

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby runs until February 20.