Lisa’s all mouth

Only Lisa’s mouth is visible for Not I’s terrifying monologue. Picture: John Haynes

By David Hennessy

Lisa Dwan, the Athlone actress, has been acclaimed for her acting in a sold out run of a trilogy of short Beckett plays, Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby at The Royal Court Theatre and the show is soon to transfer to The Duchess Theatre in The West End.

However, Lisa makes a deal with herself during each and every performance that she’ll do it no more after completing her current show. It’s a deal she breaks every time she goes on stage the next night, and a deal she’ll break many more times as she performs the trilogy in The West End, New York, Paris, Sydney and Hong Kong among more destinations on the show’s international tour. But as producer of the show, it is herself that she defies primarily.

Lisa tells The Irish World when we recently caught up with her: “I’ve done a deal with myself, the producer. Mighty Mouth, my company, have done a deal with the actress Lisa Dwan telling her she only needs to do it until March 2015 and that’s a deal at the moment.”

Lisa pauses before adding with a laugh: “Producers have an awful way of going back on their word though. I don’t want to do not I much longer into 2015 because I’d like to hang up the lips. I’ve set myself this dead line, I’d like to see if I can honour it.”

Lisa plays both roles of May and her mother Rose in Footfalls. Picture: John Haynes

Besides being unsure if she’ll honour the deal she’s made with herself, does wearing the hats of both actor and producer at once get difficult? “It’s not a precedent that’s been set before and you can see why. Both roles can be all consuming. Above all, I’m an actor and I bring people in if necessary to help me when I really need to concentrate, I’m very disciplined about that. I am very disciplined about rest, exercise, diet, sleep, meditation, everything that helps the performance and ultimately that’s the most important thing. What happens on the stage ultimately is more important than anything else: That’s what people are paying to see.”

Not I, a monologue with only the actress’ mouth visible on stage, requires Lisa to be covering her face and neck in tar-like make-up, being blindfolded and having her arms being placed in restraints and her head tightly strapped. Delivered in a speedy nine minutes, Beckett wanted this stream to consciousness to be delivered at the sound of thought and told Jessica Tandy who delivered it in 24 minutes: “You’ve ruined my play”. It has never been performed as fast as Lisa gets through it.

Billie Whitelaw, the actress who gave Not I its British premiere at the Royal Court in 1973 and has worked with Lisa in her preparation, has described the piece as “falling backwards into hell” and for its uniqueness and demands, it has grabbed much press attention with the other two parts of the trilogy almost coming secondary.

But the actress doesn’t think this is right: “I don’t want the demands that are placed on the actress to take away from the work as it stands alone. It’s kind of irrelevant in away what the actress has to go through to create the final result. Maybe in the future, an actress won’t have to be in such physical confines when the technology might enable it to be a little bit easier so in a way it’s kind of separate to what the piece is about.”

You may imagine working with such confines would constrict an actress but Lisa reveals: “It’s quite the opposite actually, it liberates your tools of expression and certainly that’s been my experience: So liberating. Your whole soul is required, not just the flash of an eyelid or a stylised smirk. It’s extremely liberating for an actress to have a writer require and demand every cell of my concentration, every ounce of expression I can possibly give with such emotional truth and immediacy, it’s a privilege to be asked that much of. No other writer I’ve come across has ever asked so much of me. Usually and all too often, it’s sad to think that you’re being offered one dimensional cardboard stereotypes of what they think a woman is.”

The mouth is a part Lisa has been performing on and off since 2005 and although Billie Whitelaw tutored her with the playwright’s own notes, that was not until she had found her way herself: “In the way everything has  happened, I couldn’t have been more fortunate to have been allowed my own access point and to be able to grapple with the work myself, to be able to use my own landscape and before meeting Billie and taking on Beckett’s notes direct from her.

Lisa performing Rockaby. Picture: John Haynes

“However she as part of the notes completely enforced and supported my instinct that it had to be my own landscape and not to adapt or copy some sort of Beckettian style. She was very adamant that I use my landscape and nervous system and experiences, and Walter (Asmus), Beckett’s assistant director and the director on this trilogy, feels the same and so that’s been the greatest part of the journey.”

Lisa and the show has been universally acclaimed: “I’m amazed that three examples of fine modernism and fairly obscure pieces of theatre, particularly Beckett’s late writing, are having this kind of reaction: Five/four star reviews, running out of superlatives and an international tour and a West End run. It’s a long way from Athlone.

“41 years ago, Beckett wrote to Alan Schneider and was worried whether this was theatre or not, he was going to direct Billie Whitelaw in it and find out. I think this most recent run of it has highlighted that it is.”

For the full interview and OUR BECKETT TRILOGY COMPETITION, see the February 1 Irish World. 

Lisa can be seen in the Beckett trilogy of Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby at The Duchess Theatre ( from February 3 to 15 before touring to Cambridge, Birmingham and Manchester. 


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