Actress Lisa Dwan: Getting her teeth into Samuel Beckett
Lisa Dwan tells Una Brankin about her nerves in bringing a trilogy of the great man's work to Belfast
In conversation, Lisa Dwan doesn't seem to have the absolute self-assurance most beautiful actresses possess, yet she is strikingly attractive and a powerful presence on the stage.
The Co Westmeath-born 36-year-old also has the perfect mouth, incidentally, for Samuel Beckett's Not I, an intense monologue on a lonely, unloved, legally powerless and religiously controlled life, as told by the protagonist herself, 'Mouth'.
Set in a pitch-black space lit by a single beam of light, Lisa's disembodied Cupid's bow lips float eight feet above the stage from behind a hidden screen, spewing a stream of consciousness, spoken, as Beckett, directed, at the speed of thought.
The former star of Dublin-set soap opera Fair City is nervous about bringing the performance – part of a one-hour trilogy – to Belfast's Mac theatre early next month, fearing it's a quiet time of the year, and is doing her own PR to promote it. But she was a hit at last year's inaugural Happy Days Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, where she returns for a reading tomorrow evening.
I wondered what she thought of Hollywood actress Julianne Moore's performance of the challenging Not I – and got short shrift. Moore's interpretation was filmed dramatically by acclaimed Irish director Neil Jordan and shown in Enniskillen last August.
"That's an unfair question if you don't mind me saying so," she says, mildly. "It's a nightmare of a piece and a privilege to play. Julianne didn't learn it but she attempted it and fair play to her. It is a terrifying prospect for any actor."
Even more traumatic when the famous Portora-educated playwright scolds you for your performance. Becket told the actress Jessica Tandy (Fried Green Tomatoes, Driving Miss Daisy) in 1972 that she had destroyed his play, delivering it far too slowly at 22 minutes.
He was mesmerised, however, by the "miraculous" 14-minute performance of English actress Billie Whitelaw (the unforgettably demonic nanny in The Omen), whom he personally coached for the part at the Royal Court in London 1973 and the film version in 1977, the year Lisa was born.
"Jessica Tandy has had an extraordinary, brilliant career so I'm sure that was just a drop in the ocean to her," says Lisa, down the line from the luxurious Ballyfin Hotel in Co Laois. "Billie's name is synonymous with the role – she's sort of the Roger Bannister of the Beckett world. I was lucky to have her coach me when my turn came in 2005. She invited me to her house and we met like two long-lost war veterans. She gave me Beckett's original notes and sat conducting me at the kitchen table, waving her arms."
Petite and fine-featured, Lisa is on a well-earned break form her one-woman show tour with the trilogy, in which she performs the Not I monologue in a record-breaking nine minutes. The butler at the five-star Ballyfin Hotel – Ireland's answer to Downton Abbey – was dispatched by reception to go looking for her in the library when she didn't answer the call to her room. She's been out horse-riding, the "perfect wind down" after her arduous performances.
"I'm here with friends – I'm very happily single," she says in a soft brogue diluted slightly by her 13 years in London. "I've had a few long-term relationships but there was no one I was ready to settle down with, and touring the world with my one-woman show takes a lot of focus. There's plenty of time for all that."
She grew up in rural Athlone by a lake. Her father William was a keen amateur actor but Lisa was the only one of his four children to follow in his footsteps. (One sister works for the UN, another is a PhD student, and her brother is a professor of English and Irish Studies at Oxford). Lisa left school at 14 after winning a scholarship to attend the Dorothy Stevens School of Ballet in Leeds, and didn't get round to doing her A-levels until she was 27.
At 12, she was chosen to dance with the legendary Rudolf Nureyev in the Ballet San Jose's production of Coppélia, in Dublin.
"I never forget it – he was incredibly handsome, even though he must have been quite ill by that stage," she recalls. "He had this wonderful chiselled face, great bone structure, and a scar above his upper lip. He was ferocious presence, with flaring nostrils. I was frightened of him but he was very kind to me."
Worn cartilages and pain in her two injured knees forced Lisa to give up ballet. She fell into acting while based for a while in Galway and, from 2006 to 2007, played the the role of Zoe Burke in 21 episodes of the RTE soap opera Fair City, Dublin's answer to EastEnders, and a far cry from the intellectual rigour of Samuel Beckett.
"I wouldn't turn my nose up at soaps – I loved my time with Fair city," she says, a little defensively. "I was in for a just a few episodes initially but they developed the storyline and I stayed on for a while. They were a great crew, brilliant. Not everything I do has to be high art."
She has also appeared in a Disney production and an American television series, and in January 2009 starred opposite Martin Sheen in Bhopal: Prayer for Rain, a film shot in India. Her Hollywood co-stars also include Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and the "mature, very professional" young Elijah Wood, best known perhaps as Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
"An incredible man," is how she describes the West Wing star Sheen. "I learned a lot from his attitude to work – he's extremely professional. It's weird, on a day off he said to me that I should do a one-woman show. I was 30 at the time and I went on to do three after that, and now I've done six. It was very prescient of him. I'd done Not I on its own at 27 but didn't know if I'd be capable of doing the trilogy."
By that stage she had moved to London and had worked in publishing, the media and presenting. "I tried it all – it was very freeing. England has given me opportunities I'd never have if I'd stayed in Ireland. Ireland is home and I miss it, but I love London."
Ecstatic reviews followed for her Not I performance in July 2009, in the Southbank Centre in London and the trilogy at Reading University last year.
"The experience is profound and deeply moving. Lisa Dwan makes the pieces entirely her own with a rapt concentration that holds the audience throughout," said The Daily Telegraph's reviewer. The Independent hailed it "an extraordinary hour-long experience, that feels more like a group hallucination ... totally gripping".
Billie Whitelaw, now 80, once likened the Not I role to "falling backwards into hell". It requires the actress's face to be plastered in thick black make-up, her eyes blindfolded, and head covered with tights and fastened through a hole in a wooden board on the stage, to which she is strapped to prevent movement. For Lisa, that means a drained mind and a lot of "vacant staring" for hours after the performance.
Beckett meant the unpunctuated piece of what he himself described as "verbal diarrhoea" to play on the nerves, although non-fans might be tempted to say it grates on them.
"I have stumbled a few times in rehearsal – it's terrifying," Lisa admits. "That was enough to imprint fear on me. I'm such a perfectionist too but thank God it has never happened live on stage. I have a stage manager with a script but any prompt would totally ruin the flow of it.
"Somebody said Beckett is a very cruel writer," she concludes. "It's okay for him to write like that but the rest of us need our delusions. It takes courage to look down the barrel of life and know that ultimately you are alone. I'm a just-in-caser: I believe just in case there is an afterlife. But this not for the faint-hearted. People can be left very brittle afterwards – we've even had panic attacks in the audience!"
A feast of Beckett by the lakes
- Now in its third year, the Happy Days International Beckett Festival runs until this Sunday (August 10)
- The festival was founded to celebrate the life and work of iconic Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (right), who attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen from 1919
- As well as talks, readings and concerts, the programme includes performances of some of his most famous plays, including Waiting for Godot, in both French and Yiddish, Krapp's Last Tape, starring Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer and Catastrophe, directed by local actor Adrian Dunbar
- Highlights still to come include a performance of I Went Into the House But Did Not Enter, based on Beckett's prose Worstward Ho, a talk by writer and feminist icon Germaine Greer and the closing concert on Sunday at St Macartin's Cathedral
- For details and bookings visit www.happy-days-enniskillen.com, tel: 028 6632 5440
Mac hosts acclaimed trilogy
- Lisa Dwan's one-woman Beckett trilogy comes to Belfast following a critically acclaimed sell-out run at the Royal Court Theatre in London's West End
- In addition to Not I's fragments of a sad, lonely, loveless life, Footfalls tells the moving story of May, a ghostly figure who paces back and forth like a metronome outside her dying mother's room
- Completing the trilogy is Rockaby – probably the most famous of Beckett's last works, which explores loneliness and loss as a woman sits on her rocking chair recounting moments from her past
- The MAC performances will run from Tuesday to Saturday, September 2-6. The performance on Thursday, September 4, includes a post-show talk with Lisa Dwan, hosted by Prime Cut's artistic director, Emma Jordan. For details, visit www.themaclive.com