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No’s Knife review at the Old Vic, London – ‘gripping journey through Beckett’s universe’

Lisa Dwan in No's Knife at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton Lisa Dwan in No's Knife at the Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Matthew Warchus is turning the Old Vic into London’s most eclectic, frequently electrifying, theatre. This year has already brought star-driven Ibsen (The Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes), narrative dance-drama (Jekyll and Hyde) and a fully-fledged Broadway-bound musical (Groundhog Day). Now he has programmed a one-woman show of extracts from a previously unstaged Beckett text to fill this historic space.

That’s before a female King Lear (Glenda Jackson) and then a rerun for Warchus’ own mid-1990s West End hit Art. In a programme note, Warchus defiantly declares of the Beckett: “It certainly isn’t ‘standard Old Vic programming’, but it’s very much in keeping with our new approach of trying to present a much wider range of work, for a much range of audiences.”

The cutting-edge No’s Knife isn’t so much pure art as art-house: a melding of forms and genres that is part art installation and part performance art that alternately puts you at a distance then seeks to lure you into the complex torrent of words that its narrator pours out, in a desperate bid to keep oblivion at bay.

This is standard, recognisable Beckett territory – and certainly the staging of the first of four extended vignettes that comprise this 70 minute monologue is heavily reminiscent of Happy Days, as we observe a woman as if from above, buried in a crevice of vertical rock installed on stage. It could be a burial ground. “I am down in the hole the centuries have dug, centuries of filthy weather, flat on my face on the dark earth sodden with the creeping saffron waters it slowly drinks,” she tells us in a stream of pure poetry.

As performed by the bewitching presence of the ever-present Lisa Dwan, who has carved out a particular niche as a Beckett expert, it becomes perplexing and exhilarating by turns. In the second and fourth scenes, she’s wandering in a landscape of scorched earth, caught in the crosshairs of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, heavy with haze. And in between, she’s perched on a floating throne-like platform, waiting for the death summons. “Yes, one begins to be very tired, very tired of one’s toil, very tired of one’s quill, it falls, it’s noted.”

Dwan, who also conceived the work and co-directs it with Joe Murphy, has a bitter affinity with Beckett’s poetry and existential angst. As designed by Christopher Oram, the show also has a bleak beauty. Only occasionally does it tip over into indulgence, feeling as if its effects are calculated as much as felt. But then Dwan’s utter concentration and commitment are always there to bring us back to the moment, chilling us anew with a combination of ferocity and fear.

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Gripping, sometimes gruelling journey inside Beckett's dark, imaginative universe