Watching No’s Knife, a 70-minute monologue based on Samuel Beckett’s 1950s prose Texts for Nothing, is a bit like seeing a professional athlete do a marathon. It’s extremely impressive but it’s also a little tedious.
If you’re a serious Beckett devotee and want to see his work done in a truly unusual way, No’s Knife is worth seeing. Equally, for anyone interested in acting for acting’s sake, Dwan is staggeringly good at delivering this challenging piece entirely alone on stage.
The play is split into four acts and we see her in a slightly different location each time – from a rocky cliff to a cage suspended above the stage. As she sits, stands and lies, with a brown dress and bloody legs, she speaks in a startling, intriguing range of tones and embodies different characters. Screeches, gruff mumbles, growls, an elderly Irish man, an upperclass English woman – all these voices suggest a haunted consciousness full of memory, trauma, depression, hope and loss.
Beckett never intended his Texts for Nothing to be performed and unlike his iconic plays Waiting For Godot or Endgame, No’s Knife has no real structure or characters. That makes it harder to see one’s way through the complex jumble of language.
There are some really stunning moments in the final act, when Dwan stands right at the edge of the stage and looks down on the audience. Her last lines, desperate questions about life and death that we all think about, are visceral and spine-chilling.
If more of the performance had been as theatrical and intimate as the final act, it would have been a more engaging performance. Instead, just as the monologue is full of questions like “why am I here?”, at times I was wondering the same thing about myself being at the Old Vic watching No’s Knife.
But in the best scenes, Dwan’s athletic, mesmerising delivery of Beckett’s mysterious prose made me thoroughly glad I’d seen this admirable but exhausting piece about the human condition.
No’s Knife is at the Old Vic, London until 15 October