No's Knife Old Vic
Photo Tristram Kenton

No’s Knife

Reviewer's Rating

No’s Knife is a series of monologues, adapted from Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, which is a collection of short stories he wrote in the early 1950s. These schizophrenic monologues, performed by Lisa Dwan, are staged on a desolate wasteland, which is as bleak and jagged as Beckett’s words. Dwan proves her dedication to the material through ferocious effort, but the elusiveness of No’s Knife is perhaps not for everyone.

The performance begins with a giant projected image of an eye, closed and wound-like, which opens and melts into footage of Dwan suspended in water, perhaps symbolising a pre-natal state. A recording of heavy breathing plays, which leads into a vagitus cry and a traumatic birth (much like Breath). Dwan is revealed onstage trapped in a rock fissure. There is no gentle introduction to No’s Knife: Dwan immediately starts spewing out her demented lines with no forewarning or context. She babbles in different voices, wails like a banshee, and caws like a vulture – her identity is in complete crisis.

No’s Knife is all about absence and how it relates to the real world. These monologues are like stream-of-consciousness on steroids, evoking the sense of tumbling through darkness, devoid of any footing or certainty. The voice of Dwan is disassociated from herself, muttering about other voices, contemplating death, split into irreconcilable fragments. No’s Knife is like watching Dwan kneel at the altar of Beckett, performing her arcane utterances with the conviction of a zealot, which is mesmerising to watch, but also difficult to fully comprehend.

The fact that the text is channelled through a woman is important. Fintan O’Toole notes that “Nothing has no gender, but women have particular insights into what it means to be a non-person.” Dwan is unsure of her own body and incidentally of her own existence, unable to assert anything concrete, which evokes a similar feeling to Not I. Perhaps Dwan is symptomatic of the damage caused by male transgressions: a ghoulish manifestation of the pain some women carry inside themselves. The critical implications of No’s Knife are interesting to consider, but its sheer psychological complexity, which is so viciously asserted by Dwan, leaves you feeling completely exhausted and quite disorientated.