Samuel Beckett’s Not I is notoriously difficult to perform. It is a short, continuous stream of words from the character Mouth that loops in and out of coherence, jumping between sentences, interspersed with repetition and interjections.
In 1972, American actress Jessica Tandy performed it in a New York premiere. She was told by Beckett backstage that she had ‘ruined his play’ – 24 minutes was far too long. Beckett then decided to direct it himself, handpicking Billie Whitelaw to play the role. Whitelaw performed it in 14 and a half minutes. Later, Irish actress Lisa Dwan would become the ‘ultimate motormouth’, with a record nine and a half minutes in her shortest attempt.
Beckett wanted the play to be performed ‘at the speed of thought’, and there was no such thing as going too fast, as long as all the words were articulated. But that is not the only difficulty. The script is difficult to learn due to the lack of a coherent train of thought – that is the point, as it is meant to mimic how a mind thinks.
On top of that, there are the very specific stage directions – the performer has to be suspended off the ground in the middle of the stage, and only her mouth is to be illuminated, hovering exactly eight feet off the ground. All other parts of her, and the stage, has to be pitch black. She is buckled into place, unable to move or see, condemned to speak as fast as her mouth would allow. Lisa Dwan describes the experience as ‘terrifying’, and ‘every performance is knife-edge stuff’.
On the background of such a demanding performance, it is incredibly impressive that Jess Thom, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, decided to take it on. Tourette’s is a condition which causes one to tic, which means making movements or saying things that once cannot control. For Jess, her most common tics are saying ‘biscuit’ and thumping her chest with her fist. For a play that requires one to be still and deliver a speech with precision as quickly as possible, Not I seemed, on the outset, almost impossible for someone with Tourette’s to perform.
Despite these difficulties, Jess performs the role brilliantly (in twelve minutes as well!), in this unique production at Battersea Arts Centre that reveals Not I in a whole new light and explores ideas of reclaiming theatre’s voice. In a video shown after her performance that charts the development of the play, we see all the innovations that went into these short twelve minutes, to make it suitable for her and to bring out what she intends.
For example, because it is dangerous for her to be strapped into place, a special wheelchair was built for her on a platform that lifts her eight feet off the ground. Because she needs to move, instead of strapping her mouth into place, she wears a dark hood that has a built in light inside that shines on her mouth.
Jess says that she sees herself as “disabled”, and given the nature of Not I ’s text, it seems almost natural that it should be performed by a neurodiverse population. Rigid stage directions and instructions from Beckett aside, Jess’ modified production is important – it is an act of reclaiming theatre’s voice for the representation of all, including those who have limitations that appear to be at odds with artistic direction, but which, as exemplified in this case, actually bring new meaning to a classic text.
Throughout the performance, Jess tics freely, sometimes saying ‘biscuit’ so rapidly and in succession that it fits seamlessly into the pace of the text. There is a tension when that happens, the question hanging in the air: will she be able to continue? When Jess first came across the play, she felt that it resonated with her – the isolation of Mouth that is evident between her bursts of speech, the alienation and the apparent chaos of her thoughts. She identified with Mouth, which seemed to parallel the thoughts running through her own mind at a time when her tics were getting worse. This performance is thus both personal and political – an externalisation of her experiences, and a political act of reclaiming theatre’s voice for the marginalised.
Battersea Arts Centre is the perfect location: an old converted town hall, it has an array of rooms of different sizes. Not I uses one of their smaller rooms, and the audience sit (and are encouraged to lie) on cushions on the floor. It is a relaxed performance, and BSL integrated, a feature that Jess felt strongly about. Charmaine, her BSL interpreter, is illuminated next to Jess during the performance, and signs everything she says – including the tics!
The production video and post-show discussion make the experience complete, and I felt that I left with a fuller understanding of the play, of Jess’ motivations, and the advocacy that is integrated into the production. It was a fascinating take on what is traditionally a rigid, inflexible and tightly-controlled play – and its legacy is all the better for it.
Where? Battersea Arts Centre When? Until March 17th How Much? £10 students