Samuel Beckett’s Not I is a notoriously difficult piece to perform. Delivered at ferocious speed, it’s regarded as test of any actor. Jess Thom has Tourette syndrome, a condition that causes both verbal and motor tics, and is “neurologically incapable of staying on script”. When she first read the play, the character of Mouth resonated with her and she sought permission from the Beckett estate to perform the piece.
As stipulated by Beckett, she does so suspended 8ft above the stage with only her mouth illuminated. The words spill out of her, they gush; they can no longer be contained by her body. Occasionally she tics the word “biscuit” or “cats” – she can tic the word “biscuit” thousands of times a day – but the stream of Mouth’s words appear to displace her tics and they mainly emerge in the pauses, in little biscuity bursts.
While Thom’s performance of the Beckett monologue forms the core of the show, the production also about all the things that surround the performance. Thom has made a short documentary film that further explores what drew her to text and the things that had to be considered in order for her to perform it. Thom uses a wheelchair so the apparatus for lifting her has to accommodate this. She is not strapped in place, as is often the case, but instead she wears customised hood with built-in LED lights.
A British Sign Language interpreter performs beside her and the interplay between the two is like a kind of dance. The relationship between Thom’s body and Beckett’s text is also like a dance. These words in her mouth take on a different power. She takes this text, that is often described as punishing, tricksy and difficult – Lisa Dwan has written about the actor’s terror being a fundamental part of the piece – and makes it into something that feels liberating. She does not perform it with the speed and precision of some, but she finds other ways into it
In Thom’s past show, Backstage in Biscuit Land, she spoke passionately about the importance of inclusivity and access in theatre. This is a relaxed performance in which the audience is made to feel as comfortable and welcome as possible. There is a discussion at the end and the audience is invited to roar out the words hiding inside them. It’s a cathartic moment and a potent one, inviting us to relinquish control of our mouths, if only for a moment. In her claiming of this text, the production raises other pertinent questions about access and art, highlighting the issue of who gets to perform classic works – who gets to have their voice heard.