The following owes a huge debt to Stewart Pringle, who got me turning a lot of this around in my head after a fascinating conversation in the Royal Court bar. It’s also influenced by some of my dim memories of the thinking in Nick Ridout’s fantastic book Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems and the tiny bit I’ve so far read of Passionate Amateurs, which will no doubt add more thoughts to the mix …
If there’s one thing we all know about Beckett, it’s that it’s hard. Hard for its would-be scholars (as I quickly learned at university), hard for actors, hard for directors held to the strictures of the dead playwright and his famously inflexible estate. We as audience members are encouraged to look upon Beckett’s work as difficult, serious art, while for performers it is a daunting but defining challenge. Apparently, for all involved, it’s hard work.
This is certainly the impression that has been generated by the marketing and media coverage heralding the Royal Court’s latest Beckett offering, a trilogy of short plays headlined by breakneck monologue Not I. In a piece for the Guardian, performer Lisa Dwan insists “There is not a single aspect of Not I that isn’t difficult”; a short behind-the-scenes feature on BBC News (see below) is almost exclusively focused on the physically strenuous nature of the performance; headlines have all zoomed in on Dwan’s record time (an admittedly remarkable sub-nine minute verbal sprint); and even the show’s poster frames the performance as an ordeal, with Dwan’s eyes seeming to appeal to us from above the black make-up surrounding that all-important mouth.
And yes, the experience of becoming Mouth – the body part that must appear suspended in darkness above the stage for the short length of Not I – sounds fairly horrific. As Dwan describes for both the Guardian and the BBC, the performance requires her to be strapped into a contraption mounted on a high platform, with her eyes and ears covered for the duration. Then there’s the text itself, which loops, jumps and scratches like a record, its frenzied repetitions and rapid stream-of-consciousness construction offering no footholds for the memory. Pair that with the demanded speed and Beckett’s strict instructions for its delivery, and Not I reads like a nigh on impossible feat; it’s not surprising to learn that Billie Whitelaw originally described it as “unplayable”. The role of Mouth might sometimes be described as “the female Hamlet”, but no one is listening to “to be or not to be” with a stopwatch in hand.
All of this emphasis on the “how” of Not I is both striking and slightly paradoxical. Theatre tends to be notable for the erasure of its own work; we are invited to partake in illusions, to forget the labour that has produced what we witness on stage. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but more often than not we view theatre as a place of leisure rather than one of work. It’s strange, then, that the work of producing Not I is what has dominated the discourse around it. And not just the strain of the labour involved, but the mechanics of the illusion – pulling back the magician’s veil to reveal how it’s all done.
In some ways, arguably, this unveiling is appropriate. In his review of Not I, Stewart Pringle suggests that “Dwan’s achievement in delivering such a diamond-dense performance is to shave away a little more of the actor, of the polluting falsity of the theatre”. Beckett’s classic note was “don’t act”, demonstrating his desire to get at something beyond the art (or artifice) of performance. At the same time, however, it seems to me that what Beckett was digging towards in his rejection of the usual flourishes of theatre was a visceral rawness that nonetheless depends upon a very theatrical device. The precision with which the disembodied mouth is imagined underlines its importance as a stage image – one that is bold, uncanny and oddly hypnotic. But it’s slightly less hypnotic when you’re thinking about the make-up Dwan is wearing or imagining the straps holding her hidden body in place.
This is noted by Matt Trueman in his brilliant interrogation of why he failed to “get” Not I. He remembers being distracted throughout the performance by just the kind of mechanics discussed above, noticing occasional flashes of exposed cheek that destroyed the illusion of the disembodied mouth. I didn’t experience that same distraction myself (I might as well admit at this point, at the risk of echoing the rhapsodies of others, that the whole thing exerted an almost hallucinatory power over me), but there was, on some level of my brain that wasn’t preoccupied with the relentless shower of words and the unsettling sense that the tiny, glimmering mouth was swaying in the dark, a dim, unhelpful awareness of the sheer technical achievement of the piece. I would consider this awareness of the show’s construction as an intended effect of Walter Asmus’ production, but every other meticulously calculated element of its staging – in particular the deep, inky blackness that envelopes the audience, focusing our attention exclusively on the hovering mouth – seems intent on immersing spectators in the experience, not setting them at one remove.
I wonder, then, what the obsession with “hard work” in relation to this production might say about popular perceptions of theatre as an art form, about the idea of work in our society, and specifically about the attitude to labour within theatre. Without even getting into the economic intricacies of paying artists, which are currently the subject of much vital discussion, I would suggest that there is a tension around theatre and work that is not easily dissolvable. Going to the theatre is an activity typically associated with leisure time – something to do after work, or at the weekend. As such, audiences don’t tend to like being reminded that this is a workplace too, and the majority of the time theatre obligingly covers up the work that goes into making it. Alongside this, however, is a popular suspicion that making theatre is simply too much fun to count as proper work, met with artists’ ever more desperate protests that they do work hard – honest.
It was a small revelation to read Alex Swift‘s words, in response to the whole artists and money debate, that “work is not a moral good”. He is, of course, right, but we all (myself most definitely included) act as though it is. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the notion of hard work, when uncoupled from monetary value and profit-driven ideas of productivity, is actually a bad thing in itself, but that’s another discussion. The reason I wanted to bring Swift’s comments in here was to highlight something simple but often ignored about how our society is built on a generally unquestioned assumption that hard work equals good work. This assumption is applied to theatre too, but with a tricky double bind: you have to work hard (not too much fun allowed), but you can’t possibly let us know that you’re working hard, because that would just be embarrassing for everyone.
So how does this loop back around to Beckett and the popular take on Not I? This is just an idea – and a rather uninterrogated one at that – but I wonder if it comes back to that distinction between art and entertainment that Andrew Haydon recently discussed. He argued that in this country at the moment we’re “pretty much taught to hate, fear and mistrust art”, while funded theatre is required to succeed as entertainment in order to vindicate the public money that has gone into making it. Looked at from this angle, Not I (and much of Beckett’s work in general) falls into an odd place. It’s not really entertainment, certainly not in the way that War Horse or One Man, Two Guvnors are entertainment, but it’s revered rather than hated as art – though it might well still be feared.
As well as and connected to Beckett’s position in the canon, I want to tentatively suggest that it is precisely the “hard work” of Not I that makes it acceptable as a piece of art. There is, to echo Swift, a sense of “moral good” in the effort that this piece is supposed to require from audiences, who attend in an attitude of self-improvement (one that is, as an aside, problematically tied up with class; Beckett productions are, as Trueman points out, something of a “bourgeois experience”). The punishing labour demanded of the performer, meanwhile, is also something to be admired, something that cannot be mistaken – God forbid – for having fun. Not I soars above the fraught battleground between art and entertainment because it can be seen as a serious, hardworking endeavour for all involved.
For me, though, the experience of watching Not I was far from hard work. Hard, in a sense, maybe, but not in a way that I connect with the slog of work (though of course that depends on the kind of work we’re talking about). Blinking up at the miniscule mouth – you somehow expect it to be bigger, despite knowing that would be impossible – the rest of the world seems to melt away into the darkness. And time dances, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but never the steady tick, tick, tick of the working day. If anything, the astonishing speed is one of the least interesting things about the production, or at least it is its effects that matter, rather than the record-breaking time it achieves (here I’m reminded of Gatz, which was also framed as “hard work”, and in which the much-discussed length was again less interesting than everything else it was doing).
There are plenty more fascinating and important things to be said about theatre and work, and theatre as a place to contemplate work (see Nick Ridout’s books), but I don’t think that viewing certain productions as something audiences need to work at* is particularly helpful or illuminating – on the contrary, it can be both elitist and alienating, not to mention damaging the case for art by restricting it to work that ticks a certain box marked “difficult”. If we really want to rescue art, I’m not sure an appeal to hard work is the answer.
*Just a note: when I mention shows that audiences need to “work at”, I don’t think I’m talking about the same thing as theatre that makes audiences think – that kind of theatre is often very enjoyable to watch at the same time as it is intellectually stimulating, and feels nothing like hard work. In any case, it’s more a distinction between the ways in which work is discussed than a comment on the work itself.