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Not I
Etcetera Theatre
12th August 2015


Publicity image for Not I

Photography provided by Anne Doyle

Just as Vladimir and Estragon wait in vain for Godot, when watching Not I, we wait in vain for total clarity to hit us. It never arrives, and like the mysterious Godot, that's really the point. This isn't the most accessible of Beckett's work, but at a mere 10 minutes straight through, you don't have to work hard for long and it's worth persevering. When it comes to the Camden Fringe, there's a long list of different genres you should try to tick off, and anything by an Absurdist playwright is one of them.

There's often a temptation to link value for money to the length of a show, particularly with soaring West End prices, but with Not I, the quicker the performance, actually, the better it is. It's meant to be fast and furious. With Anne Doyle's monologue coming in at 10 minutes (including the opening mumbling), that puts her version right up there with some of the more successful attempts to do justice to Beckett's very specific vision.

Swathed in black robes, with her face completely obscured save for her mouth, all we really see under the spotlight are Doyle's lips moving, and the outline of a shady character, with the parts of the Auditor and Mouth combined. Doyle's speech is delivered with a frenetic pace increasing in urgency, slowing down and then picking up again. Some of the dialogue loops back on itself - as Doyle slows down, the one thing we can clearly make out are repeated shrieks of "What? No? Who? She!" The narrative is hard to identify in full, but Doyle is word-perfect. With a play like this it would be so very easy to trip over some of the words and break the spell. No, we can hear that she's not making any of these mistakes, we just can't make out everything due to the intentional speed of it all.

What we can gather is a jumble of words being spewed out without any kindness, and the omission of the first person. It's funny, we can't hear everything, but we can hear what we can't. The use of "I" in everyday speech is so common that when it's omitted, the silence is deafening, even in the midst of a loud, thickly Irish, non-stop tirade.

We can't make out the shape of Doyle's eyes either; her face is dehumanised, padded in black with her features almost erased. All we see is her mouth. This means we can't rely on the usual visual cues, forcing us instead to really concentrate on the tone and the language. It also strips the character of any age and setting. Even when Doyle takes her well-earned bow, no light reveals her face, we're not permitted to know the actress's appearance even then. We clap, slightly stunned, and she disappears into the darkness.

For me, Doyle's unseen protagonist is a mad old Irish lady, babbling on, who refuses to acknowledge certain events from her own past. Not that this really matters, no one's listening. It's unsettling just how much she suddenly has to say, and the way in which she delivers this. I also think it's quite bleak; we try to take in her story but we can't because she races though it too quickly. Whatever real tragedy is in there - for we can hear suggestions of it - we can't understand properly and that means we can't sympathise in the way perhaps we should. It's frustrating, but deliberately so and very typical of Beckett.

The star rating for a piece like this is largely irrelevant. Part of it relates to the execution, but on a more instinctive level, it relates to how much we enjoy it and how it makes us feel. The delivery is impressive, but the very nature of the piece makes it difficult to connect with it, perhaps explaining why it's not commonly performed. Not I is the sort of show you really want to see much more than just once, and your reaction could well be different each time, as you become more familiar with the text. With that in mind, it's a shame there are only two performances left, but you should try to catch at least one and challenge yourself.

No I opened on 11th August and runs until 13th August and then on 16th August 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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