It is dark except for a woman’s mouth which materialises eight feet in the air. The mouth utters amputated phrases at hysterical speed. There is nothing else – no body, no nose, not even a chin. On a good night it lasts less than nine minutes. Samuel Beckett wanted his monologue to be delivered at the speed of thought.
The world premiere of Not I occurred in New York in 1972 with Jessica Tandy in the role of Mouth. Beckett detested Tandy’s performance because Tandy was too slow – 22 minutes. The following year he rehearsed Billie Whitelaw for the British premiere: Whitelaw delivered the monologue in 14 minutes. Forty years on, Lisa Dwan, tutored by Whitelaw, is faster still.
It is a verbal hailstorm charged with pent-up agony. According to Whitelaw, Not I is an expression of a woman’s “inner scream”. It is a sequence of fragments of thoughts that allude to the story of a woman’s life. Facts are elusive. Mouth has suffered. Was she raped? Nothing is certain. Mouth denies she is the subject of her own narrative – “What? . . . Who? . . . No! . . . She . . . SHE!”
It is impossible to follow intellectually. There is time – just – to hear the words, but not to process them. It is an abstract, visceral experience. Horrors lurk behind the language and the image of the disembodied mouth is ghastly. It looks like it has been sliced off and suspended in black air – it oscillates. The effect is hypnotic and semi-obscene. (In fact, Dwan’s head is fixed to a solid board so that a spotlight can illuminate the mouth and nothing else. Any movement is an optical illusion.)
Her performance is brave and technically adroit. Elements of poetry survive the frantic rush. It feels virtually unmediated – just as Beckett would have liked. At best, we glimpse the volcanic chaos of a desperate mind.
It is also hard to watch. You want to look away or nip outside – or giggle. Maybe we are meant to laugh. The land of Beckett is strewn with luckless clowns in jars or bins or buried in sand; Mouth – spewing pain eight feet up – could be his blackest joke. At any rate, nine minutes can feel like a long time.