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Review of Samuel Beckett's No's Knife at the Old Vic Theatre

Samuel Beckett -- the great, late poet and playwright of existential angst and life's endless futility -- is regularly produced on London stages, with such plays as Waiting for Godot, Happy Days Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape turning up frequently. But "new" Beckett is far rarer, especially given that he died in 1989, aged 83. But in a poetic irony that he would surely appreciate, he is living on beyond the grave, even as his work anticipates annihilation.

"It's unusual to see a Beckett I've not seen before, and I know my Beckett!", stated a self-declared aficionado sitting behind me at the premiere of No's Knife. Drawn from Beckett's Texts for Nothing -- a series of short prose pieces written between 1950 and 1952 -- Lisa Dwan now follows her famous theatrical triple bill of Beckett's short plays Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby (which she has performed at the Barbican and the Arts Theatre) with this piece that she has conceived, stars in and has co-directed with Joe Murphy.

It expands the Beckettian performance repertoire in the biggest gesture since Trevor Nunn made a theatrical version of Beckett's radio play After the Fall that was premiered at the fringe Jermyn Street Theatre in 2012, prior to an transfer to the Arts and New York.

It has found a home at Matthew Warchus's Old Vic, which has perceptively been changing the template of expectations at this south London address. It follows Warchus's own production of Groundhog Day, which is now Broadway-bound, and precedes Glenda Jackson's return to the stage in the title role of King Lear. That's quite a challenging and interesting theatrical diet.

But even as I applaud the ambition, I would caution that No's Knife may not be to all tastes: it's a bleak, bleak, bleak journey into Beckett's remorselessly dark world vision. This is a symphony for a voice crying out from the void as she tries (and fails) to succumb to it. In the first of four scenes, she's even buried in it, caught and confined in a crack of earth seen from above in Christopher Oram's arresting sculptural design.

In the second and fourth scenes, she's a figure wandering in a desolate, scorched earth universe; while the third finds her hovering above the stage in a celestial-like throne, waiting for a summons to take her somewhere else.

Is it death? Very possibly. As performed by Lisa Dwan, death takes on a very tangible sense of life. It's very bleak, but also at times very brilliant, too.

What the Press Said...

"Dwan's vocal range is astonishing in her adaptation of Beckett's Texts for Nothing, but the ingenious staging still struggles to give physical life to mysterious prose."
Michael Billington for The Guardian

"The evening unfolds in movements, as in a piece of music; it's a progression that sees her gradually step beyond the proscenium frame and closer to the audience, the heart laid absolutely bare. Unforgettable."
Paul Taylor for The Independent

"It's an enigmatic and demanding seventy minutes, which takes us deep into the realm of the subconscious."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

External links to full reviews from popular press
The Guardian - The Independent


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