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No’s Knife at The Old Vic

Alice Dickerson

Lisa Dwan's performance in No's Knife is truly incredible but good luck enjoying it if you're not familiar with Beckett's work.

Perhaps of all shows performed at The Old Vic since Matthew Warchus became artistic director, No's Knife is the one that heralds the true change of direction from his predecessor. It is a wholly uncompromising display of Samuel Beckett's work, even for an artist whose work is always uncompromising. It wasn't even written for the stage.

The force behind it is, in more ways than one, Lisa Dwan. An actor who has a history with Beckett's work, she was the one who conceived the idea to bring a selection of Beckett's short stories from Texts for Nothing to the stage. What may have seemed like a daunting, if not foolhardy, idea to anybody else, Dwan was undoubtedly spurred on by her experience performing Beckett's Not I. Playing the disembodied mouth of Not I requires one to be blindfolded, head tied into a vice and arms put in brackets. It is not a role for the fainthearted.

And Dwan's performance in No's Knife is astounding. Her physical presence is one thing, holding the focus of the audience for over 70 minutes as the text spews forth from her body. But it is her verbal dexterity that particularly astounds, inhabiting multiple voices seemingly simultaneously.

Unless you've read and studied Texts for Nothing beforehand – and even then fully comprehending No's Knife is nigh on impossible. This charge could of course be applied to almost all of Beckett's work, yet audiences normally have some prior knowledge of his most famous works for stage Godot, Happy Days etc. Dwan's virtuoso performance, delivered with little pause for breath, only highlights the challenge of Beckett's work.

It was a brave decision of The Old Vic to premiere No's Knife and it will undoubtedly be performed again elsewhere. Lisa Dwan's performance however will be a hard act to follow.

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