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Lisa Dwan as the mouth in Not I, by Samuel BeckettYou need to be in a very particular headspace for this. It’s extreme-Beckett, stripped to the minimum  and feels closer to a spiritual experience than a theatrical one. A short, desolate howl at the fragility of the human state. The agonies of birth, life and death in under an hour. After a gentle warning, we are plunged into absolute blackness – literally no extraneous distractions, somewhat like entering the neutrality of a meditative state, but much more unnerving. And then out of the darkness, there it is, tiny, gabbling, breathy, far off at the end of the room, the famous mouth letting forth a torrent of seemingly unfiltered, muddled, desperate words. We make out scraps of logic and sense; she talks at breakneck speed of an awakening, perhaps a birth of sorts, a premature birth maybe. She talks of the buzzing in her head that is finally finding a voice and her discovery of the muscles that allow her to speak. She only pauses to angrily deny that she is talking about herself and barely have we begun to understand her and she’s fading away, still talking, oblivious to her listeners, and we’re back in the slient blackness. We breathe again… it’s been pretty intense. Next, a whole lifetime is reduced to nine footsteps; gloomily lit, a woman in white paces up and down and counts her life away in meted repetition. She talks to her mother, details are vague between them, but their conversation speaks of tired familiarity. Both seem weary of life, perhaps because of each other, wishing their time away, slow step by slow step. Life seems to trickle out of her wan form as she walks. And then, as if in response, the third piece offers us a glimpse of the very end of a life. An elderly woman rocks back and forth in a chair, eking out her final moments, remembering her past, crying out for ‘more’ when the words run out and the chair stops rocking. Elegantly in black sequins, she clings on to the last vestiges of existence until there is no ‘more’ and finally the chair stops rocking completely. It’s bleak stuff. Obscure and simple at the same time; disarming and engaging. There’s the poetry, the constant use of repetition and subtle variation, the echoes across the generations, the deep sadness and simmering anger. The ordering gives the three plays almost a narrative structure, but it’s hard to top the intensity and shock value of that jabbering mouth. Lisa Dwan is extraordinarily strong throughout, her rapid shifts of tone and age are utterly convincing and you can’t help but applaud her for just learning the text, let alone making it live. I was very glad to see it, but also glad to escape from Beckett’s bleak world at the end.

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