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FringeReview UK 2016

No’s Knife: Lisa Dwon in Conversation with Clemency Burton-Hill

Old Vic

Genre: International, Talk, Theatre

Venue: Old Vic


Low Down


This discussion at the Old Vic with Clemency Burton-Hill finds Dwon’s new venture. It’s more elaborate, less fleet than her trilogy of texts two years ago. Lisa Dwon has stitched five narratives from Beckett’s thirteen Texts For Nothing. Dwon is co-director with Joe Murphy, with design by Christopher Oram.


You’d never think Lisa Dwon, Radio 3’s Clemency Burton-Hill told us, is suffering from pneumonia and flu just after that astonishing performance of No’s Knife. And instead of putting her feet up with a large gin, here she is. No, it certainly didn’t seem so, Dwon eloquent throughout, as was Burton-Hill herself.


The latter (once an actor too) recalled how she’d known Dwon for 12 years and heard her say when they met that she loved Beckett – who didn’t, thought Burton-Hill to herself, so what? – and wanted to perform him. But then the privilege of watching Dwon’s career over the past 12 years has been astonishing, performing Not I and much else, to what acclaim as some describe Dwon as the Beckett performer. Even considering Conor Levett, the other great contemporary Beckett performer, it’s hard to disagree.


Dwon talked of how she had to memorialise (not perhaps marmorialise as the ‘Beckett Church’ wants – SJ) all texts to memory being dyslexic. Beckett in the texts she performs allows a genderless freedom, and how the voices as immigrant voices now and dead children hit her like the bog people of Tolland elsewhere in the first piece. Dislikes the church of Beckett asks Edward Beckett and Billie Whitelaw’s advice to her was so liberating, allow your Irishness in. There isn’t a moralising or intellectual centre, ‘putting his hand on the wound’ and these texts are remarkable for allowing the dead to speak ‘I am down in the hole the centuries have dug… saffron waters slows drifts’ but this is perfect for the Tolland people, not literally but usefully.


Dwon first said that’s she never felt so supported as here, in this production, everything circled around her to do anything, it was quite incredible. Dwon also admitted she feels she might be a failure each night, each night is different and she’s perfectly attuned to being wrong, that her vanity as actor even as a blonde woman makes her want to thinks he’s doing well. So when the creatives and everyone gathered around she begged them to be utterly ruthless. Each person came emblazoned with ‘no wank’ on their t-shirts as instructed, had to be totally ruthless with her.


She felt liberated, admired Whitelaw for calling Beckett’s embodiment in her self discipline, Dwon’s own ballet training meant it’s all incredible self-discipline: ‘I’m incredibly self-disciplined I live like a nun and just focus on the words and try not getting ill – that’s worked (laughs) and I wanted to ensure each performance couldn’t reflect last night but no, the wound the incision the words made with me now. You can tell last night’s reheated version, or a very close approximation. It’s dead.’


This writer asked the first question on tempo and pace. I was able especially the second time to get or follow Not I (if one ever can) but the tempo here being slower is it difficult to navigate the narrative, with her own iterated pauses, that the terrain’s so variegated and the pauses break these, extend them to snapping or etiolation? Dwon said of course each night’s different; and in there with her flu thinking her voice is wrong the other part’s focusing on the words and the other to the least rustle in the audience: which is how you’re wired up. But yes of course slow performance does entail a gathering of the right momentum not to lose focus.


The next question was perhaps more irritating. Dwon was challenged by a woman who’d directed Godot or at least Beckett twice. She was asking about Dwon having said just now that she was against the Beckett church or scholarship. At same time Dwon went to Edward Beckett so did she look to him for blessing? No, Dwon wasn’t against Beckett scholarship, and didn’t seek Edward Beckett’s blessing, but she found the atmosphere of holiness off-putting and when one young PhD student said to her he’d been told he was in the inner circle she felt it time to get as far from that as possible, and reclaim Beckett viscerally from intellectualising about him. Edward Beckett didn’t sanction so much as give permission, OK’d it, and of course Billie Whitelaw’s fidelity was astonishing: now there was someone wholly dedicated to no ego and ferocious dedication.


The third was a question about intellect and emotive grounding commenting that the last questioner had answered some of his questions. But where did Dwon stand in relation to the intellectual and academic traditions of Beckett? Dwon reiterated she had all due reverence for the text of Beckett and more, and how precisely Beckett wished his texts to be performed, and with the great tradition of actors with whom he worked – Patrick McGee and Billie Whitlelaw from whom she learned so much and who when she distrusted her own Irish voices coming through told her ‘no that’s exactly what he intended’, and was able to give herself permission to ground these in her own performances, the voices she met in the road growing up and had leapt off the page when she first saw them.


The fourth questioner extended this, asking about gender and performance, and where next? Dwon talked about genderless voicing, how genitalia disappears here and how liberating that is particularly if you’re blonde, a woman, how that allows you to lose your body. She really thinks it’s great that she’s not here in the role of cutie: being bodiless or suspended liberates her, even when she’s feeling as she does now.


Prompted by Burton-Hill Dwon added yes her latest role a woman throwing herself under a train: Anna Karenina, and of course she has to negotiate different things as she’s been branded a Beckett specialist and is an explorer of things that interest her.


Burton-Hill thanked Dwon and said we’d have to cut this shorter than usual obviously and let her go – but after clapping one woman in the front row crowded Dwon, having seen her in Canada. Dwon was caught in the glare of autograph hunters.