Photo by Manuel Harlan. Courtesy of The Old Vic.
Not much is known about the genesis of Texts for Nothing, Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic series of thirteen prose pieces. Originally composed in French as Textes pour Rien, they were first published in English in 1967 with other short works under the portmanteau title No’s Knife (the phrase occurs in Text XIII). Beckett did not consider them to be dramatic works, and in his letters he repeatedly relates them to L’Innomable, the last part of his trilogy. Although he gave encouragement to a staging of the Texts (with parts of How It Is) in 1983 by the American actor Joseph Chaikin, it’s still something of a surprise to see a selection of them now staged at the Old Vic under their first English title. The new monologue is conceived and performed by Lisa Dwan, who has rightly made a name for herself as an excellent Beckett interpreter. After her sensational standalone performance of Not I at the Royal Court, she included it in a trilogy with Footfalls and Rockaby, the three together forming an exhilarating and demanding evening. My expectations were therefore high for this latest production, though with some doubts about how such a work might be presented.
Her appearance on stage immediately evokes other female Beckett characters: Dwan’s partial enclosure in a cleft brings to mind Winnie’s stasis in Happy Days, as well as W in Rockaby, and the highly constrained position of the actor in Not I. This seems appropriate: motifs of stillness, even stasis, also featured in exchanges between Beckett and Chaikin when discussing how to stage the work. When Chaikin offered an image of a man “mostly motionless”, Beckett responded with “Seated. Head in hands. Nothing else”. Yet a frantic desire to escape becomes apparent as Dwan modulates rapidly from one voice to another, the addition of sound treatments to some of her phrases adding to a sense of hyperactivity. The scene changes three times in the space of the seventy minute running time but the third section has echoes of the first, suggesting a triptych structure. The sense of closure turns out to be mistaken when the fourth section commences. Each movement of the piece sees Dwan suggesting a different character or aspect of a personality brought out by the altered mise en scène and the selections from the texts. These changes contribute to the sense of restlessness apparent throughout, as do her abrupt transitions between voices and moods. Some passages were so rushed they were inaudible, whether intentionally or not.
For most of the performance I was reminded of a reading of Lessness, another short piece of Beckett’s prose, at the Barbican’s Beckett Festival in 2015. Simply staged, with Olwen Fouéré reading the text at a desk, this was Beckett uninflected yet intensely musical and rhythmic. By contrast, at the Old Vic, Dwan’s virtuosic but relentless changes of voice, mood, and pace meant that her efforts to characterise the words only seemed to obscure their already complex music. With the energy of her performance brought to the fore, the text almost seemed to take second place. Beckett himself, listening to Chaikin’s rehearsal recordings, found them “too brisk and lively”, and commented later, “I hear it myself with less colour, a voice almost spent”.
Altogether, it seemed remarkably unlike Beckett. His typical scenarios, of claustrophobic or potentially suffocating environments, or situations that resist the imposition of meaning, lead his characters to circle around the possibilities of escape or diversion, but such relief rarely arrives. Dwan’s eventual crossing of the boundary between stage and auditorium in the final section broke with this paradigm of containment, needlessly underlined by the simultaneous highlighting of the proscenium arch. It only seemed to confirm what had become all too apparent much earlier in the evening – that this interpretation emphasised the actor rather more than the text she was straining to give life to.
Beckett sat in on Patrick Magee’s recording of the texts in 1974 and complained that the actor was reading them “too emphatically, it should be no more than a murmur”. It was as if, he explained to Magee, he was watching people in the street from a ground floor window just a few yards away, but the distance was more like ten thousand miles. Dwan was too emphatic in her attempts to bridge that enormous gap between reader and hearer and her performance raises larger questions about how free an actor can be in their interpretation. But Beckett repeatedly indicated to Chaikin, somewhat uncharacteristically, that he was happy for the actor to do as he saw fit with the work. And in another letter in 1981, Beckett wondered of the Texts, “how stage that bodilessness?” The question remains. No’s Knife was a brave but unsuccessful response.
No’s Knife was at The Old Vic 29.9.16–15.10.16. This review is of the opening night.
About the author
Mark Liebenrood recently completed an MA in History of Art at Birkbeck with a dissertation on Agnes Martin’s grid paintings. He has co-edited Dandelion, Birkbeck’s postgraduate arts journal, and contributed research to a Tate In Focus article on Louise Nevelson. He has long been interested in Beckett and is on Twitter, ambivalently, as @markliebenrood.