Not I

Photo: Bob Dixon (Image of Samuel Beckett by John Minihan)

Photo: Bob Dixon (Image of Samuel Beckett by John Minihan)

Not I (1972) is typical of Beckett’s late theatre in so far as it focuses on fragmented corporeality and affective force in a manner that tests theatre’s representational limit. The piece is written as an aestheticized logorrhea delivered by a carefully illuminated mouth. Although only 14 minutes long, Beckett hoped that the play would have a powerful viceral effect on its audience in performance, telling Jessica Tandy, who premiered the role, that it should “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.”

This production of the infrequently staged play opens an evening of music and poetry programmed as part of the Dublin Writers Festival. The actor playing Mouth (Nolan) speaks at stage level, and not from 8ft in the air as Beckett specifed in his stage directions. While her mouth is lit head-on, the scene is also projected onto a large screen on stage right, captured from a side angle.

Beckett was very interested in technology, making works for radio and television. In addition to directing Not I for stage, he was involved in its production for BBC television in 1973, featuring his favoured actor, Billie Whitelaw. Later, as part of the 'Beckett on Film' project (2001), the play was directed by Neil Jordan starring Julianne Moore.

While Beckett never mixed media in his involvement with productions of Not I, nor expressed a desire to do so, in this take Mouth is both present on stage and digitally mediated. This double articulation is somewhat disorienting, and on a certain level interesting because of that, but the overall effect does not pack the punch that Beckett sought to achieve. Instead of being shocked by the spew of words that Mouth releases, taking us from birth to old age, in this version our attention is drawn to the machinery of representation. The projector and screen diffract so much light across the stage and into the front rows of the theatre that the theatrical apparatus is exposed, forcing us to consider it, and flit between competing mouths. While Beckett’s notes specify that the actor cover her body so that only the mouth is discernible, here the close-up projection clearly reveals a nylon seam tracing the actor’s upper lip, and black face paint. In busily drawing our attention to the technology and theatricality of the production in this way, Mouth is never allowed to take centre stage.

It is worth mentioning that the part is notoriously difficult to play, and Whitelaw reported to have hyperventilated due to sensory deprivation during rehearsals. While neither Nolan nor the audience is forced to reckon with this level of intensity, the sole performer captures the pace and tone of the clipped prose well. The bright red lipstick is an unnecessary distraction, although when the camera manages to pick up on the inside of her mouth in a way not done in either of the earlier films, the production taps into a visual effect that would be interesting to explore further. However, this is likely only to be possible in a workshop setting due the restrictions imposed by the Estate.

Fintan Walsh is a post-doctoral researcher at the School of Drama, Trinity College Dublin. He is ITM’s staff writer.


  • Review
  • Theatre

Not I by Samuel Beckett

4 June 2010 (on tour)

Produced by Mouth Piece Productions
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Keith Hughes

With: Melissa Nolan

Presented as part of the 2010 Dublin Writers Festival: