Edinburgh Fringe 2017
Jess Thom has Tourettes, a condition that means she makes movements and noises she can’t control, called tics. Following the award-winning Backstage in Biscuit Land, she takes on Samuel Beckett’s short play in a theatrical experience that explores neurodiversity and presents it in a unique way.
Not I is a short dramatic monologue written by Samuel Beckett in 1972. Beckett was very precise about how it must be performed: in a pitch black space with only the mouth of the actress lit, eight foot above the stage. The mouth utters jumbled sentences at a blistering pace; fragmented phrases, interruptions and repetitions from a woman of about seventy born who was prematurely, abandoned, lives on the edge of the community.
This sense of exclusion and the nature of the piece appealed to Jess Thom, best known for Backstage in Biscuitland. Thom has Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological condition characterised by involuntary limb movements and speech utterance. She felt it could have been written for her. Her everyday experience is very like that of Mouth, a stream of words arriving unbidden, interrupting and shaping her.
Thom has taken a piece that is challenging for actor and audience alike: actor because it’s famously difficult to learn and is performed whilst constrained in a head clamp into total darkness and for the audience a sensory assault that, whilst exhilarating to experience, is difficult to make sense of, and turned it into an extraordinary piece that loses nothing of the original but brings it alive in a multitude of different ways. And punctured a the sacred cow of the perfect performance in nine minutes.
The show begins with an introduction by Thom: how she came to be a performer (her tics drew unwanted attention as an audience member so she decided to take the only seat in the house she couldn’t be thrown out of, the one on the stage), a little about Not I and her interest and an explanation of what will happen during the show. For this work has been designed as a fully accessible show from its very conception. It is relaxed, the audience can move around, leave, return as they wish and no one will comment on any comment or sounds (although I’m not sure I extend that to the man sharing the light from his phone during her performance of Not I). She worked with performer Charmaine Wombwell to translate it into British Sign Language (BSL); Wombwell signs the entire show including any tics that Thom exhibits. Descriptive text is included for those who are blind or visually impaired. She explains that a lift will raise her to the required eight foot, that we will be in low light rather than total darkness and that only the lower part of her face will be lit. Her head will not be in a clamp as she would not be able to tolerate that. Wombwell remains at stage level lit as she signs everything that Thom says, including the tics.
Not I is usually performed with one or more other short piece by Beckett making a full programme. This is how I first saw it and, whilst the experiences of watching Lisa Dwan perform it in nine minutes (a record) wrapped in a blanket of total darkness and silence with only the mesmerising mouth spewing the text out in a torrent of words was an incredible sensual experience the moving straight on to another piece (even with a Q&A at the end) left no time to process or assimilate it.
This production gives the piece an hour, or more accurately we spend an hour in the company of Jess Thom who voices it and Charmaine Wombwell who signs it not only experiencing the piece but learning more about it and about the process of creating it.
It isn’t in total darkness, Thom isn’t strapped into a head brace in the way that Dwan’s was. They introduce the piece with some background to this performance as well as to the work of Beckett before Thom is raised the requisite eight foot in her wheelchair on a platform. She is in black, a light illuminates her mouth with the rest of her face in shade. Wombwell stands to one side, a little like the auditor described in the script, but much more active. The process of translating the script into BSL has been integral to the development of the show, this is not ‘a signed show’ this is a dual performance in two languages and each brings a different interpretation to the text (and I know almost no BSL!). I wanted to watch it twice, once focussing on Thom and the text – 12 minutes is a much more comfortable pace to hear it at and the second time simply watching Wombwell’s fluent interpretation. The two work in almost seamless harmony – words might be expressed differently voiced or signed but their expressions were often completely in sync.
Thom delivery is interrupted by her tics, mostly commonly the word ‘biscuit’ repeated several times until she can return to the script. Oddly, they do not interrupt the flow or the sense, they are almost like a metronome marking time, giving us a moment to let the words we have just heard settle in our minds.
An added challenge for Wombwell is that she signs everything including Thom tics, which can occur at any moment, so she has to be prepared to leave the script, sign the tics and then return. No easy task in a piece with so much repetition. If I can find any fault with the production it is that Wombwell is performing at floor level and, as one of the oldies who went for a chair at the back rather than the floor I found I couldn’t always see her without some peering round heads in front – and if BSL were my main launguage that would have affected my enjoyment. However, that is a minor point that can easily be addressed.
The show concludes with a short documentary film by Matthew Poutney about the process of making the show and a chance to ask questions.
Some may see this as less than pure Beckett, I came out of it understanding far more about the piece than I had ever before despite careful reading and having seen the 2013 production. This is not a lesser version, a dumbed down one to be accessible, they are equal in standing but different. I feel very privileged to have been able to experience both, as each brings a different understanding.
The run at the fringe was very short and sold out but look out for future productions because sure as biscuits is biscuits there will be more.