Not I previewed: “The most stressful, panic-inducing, amazing hour…”

Not I -  Sky Arts2

Communications Assistant Hannah Hiett blogs about the thrill of seeing Lisa Dwan performing her tour de force Not I as part of a Samuel Beckett trilogy, coming soon to The Lowry…

It helps, when your business is to get other people excited about theatre, to have actually seen a show yourself.

With this is mind, I was sent down to London to see The Royal Court’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby, performed by Lisa Dwan, during its run in the West End.

It was an enormous critical success – I knew both its Royal Court runs had completely sold out. I like Beckett, I’ve seen Endgame and I’d written a few essays on Beckett at university, and I didn’t expect to be out of my depth.

I expected, like many of the fantastic shows I’ve had the privilege to see while working at The Lowry, to think it was brilliant, artistically credible and definitely worth seeing if you’re into that kind of thing.

Never before, in my 18 months as The Lowry’s Communications Assistant, have I felt the need to tell every single person I know my experience of a production, and pushed everyone I’ve ever met – theatre buffs or not – to go if they possibly can.

Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby is much much more than a night at the theatre; it’s an experience somewhere between a waking nightmare, a simulation ride and the most intense trip you never had.

These three short monologues were the most nerve-racking, heart-palpitating, panic-stricken 55 minutes of my life.

Before the lights went down in the theatre, an announcement was made: The emergency exit lights would be switched off, every leak of light will be blocked. If you can’t handle it, please don’t run, keep calm, stay in your seats until the first short piece was done and there would be a three-minute blackout before the next piece began. If you had to get out, please go then.

That set the tone – the tension in the theatre was palpable. Who expected to want to escape from a critically acclaimed theatre production? 

I thought had some idea what to expect. I’d seen Not I on film and it didn’t look that scary. Guess again.

Nothing on a screen can compare to the experience of complete and total darkness so black that you can hear it like static. That kind of dark stuffs your ears – you can’t hear the person next to you breathing. You can’t hear 400 people in the audience breathing, shifting, trying to shrink into themselves, to find an internal ‘safe space’ and stay calm.

You could be utterly alone but you’re too afraid to reach out and try to touch the person next to you to check you’re still in a theatre, you’re still alive, you’ve not gone mad and you’ve not been blinded.

Then, a light. ‘Thank God’ I thought, something, at least, is here in the dark with me.

That ‘something’ was sheer incomprehensible insanity.

Lisa Dwan described her experience of performing Not I as “like driving down the motorway the wrong way with no handbrake.” If she felt like that then I, in the audience, was the proverbial deer in her headlights.

Beckett wanted this piece delivered ‘at the speed of thought.’ Dwan can deliver the entire script in nine minutes, the fastest it’s ever been performed.

It comes at you at such a pace that there’s no way your brain can compute the words and scraps of sentences and arrange them into any kind of meaning.

In the suffocating darkness, the only bit of solid, material reality keeping you from feeling like you’re going mad, the light at the end of the tunnel, is just a floating, disembodied mouth.

The language fails to do any of the jobs of language – communicate, de-mystify, console or comfort.

I have never felt so claustrophobic in my life – in fact I quite like dark, snuggly little spaces – but as I sat in the centre of the row, in a compact and cosy Victorian theatre, I was in a sweat. My head buzzed with confusion, and I knew tears were not far off.

At first the only way to stay in control was to close my eyes and try to concentrate on the odd full sentence I could grip onto and cling to it as though my life and sanity depended on it.

Then I tried watching the mouth and trying to hear nothing.

Then I decided I had to let the full blast of it wash over and around me and stop struggling against the experience. 

I had to, because I knew I was probably never going to experience anything like this intensity in a theatre ever again, and I wanted to let it do its worst.

Afterwards, I felt dazed for hours – like I’d emerged into the world after weeks or months of solitary confinement in that little black box.

I realised that, like any of the crazy, life-threatening, reality-bending thrills that people seek out, this production was a rush.

After dangerously loosening my grip on reality, making me feel more threatened than I’ve ever felt, and letting me come out the other side, Beckett’s Not I was probably the biggest adrenaline kick I’d ever had.

And I hadn’t needed an engine, a mountain or a parachute to achieve it.

Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby is at The Lowry from Tue 23-Sat 27 September – tickets here.

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