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Review of Not I by Samuel Beckett at Battersea Arts Centre

Intro to Not I - credit James Lyndsay
Intro to Not I – credit James Lyndsay

A very warm welcome to this production of Not I from the show’s lead performer, Jess Thom, contrasted well with the sub-zero temperatures the audience endured to get to this performance (at the time of writing, heavy snowfall has led to cancelled flights and school closures in various parts of the UK). Jess’ co-star, introduced only as Charmaine, said everything Jess said, but in British Sign Language. I am not conversant in BSL, but I have been made aware that one of the gripes that sign language users have when it comes to interpreting spoken word into BSL is that those without hearing difficulties sometimes sign too fast. Unlike a conversation, during a live performance, it isn’t possible to stop the signer and ask them to repeat.

This is, theoretically, a magnified problem in a monologue that is supposed to be performed at an uncomfortably rapid pace. It starts quickly, and with no turning back, only gets faster. A brief documentary film, shown immediately after the monologue, explains how this challenge, as well as many others, are overcome. This production is as faithful to Samuel Beckett’s stage directions as it could reasonably be, with the show’s one character, Mouth, “about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow”.

Mouth refers to herself in the third person, which explains the show’s title. The sentences in the script are deliberately incomplete, occasionally frustratingly so, and thanks to Jess’ involuntary tics (due to her having Tourette’s Syndrome), are furnished with ‘hedgehog’, ‘cats’ and ‘biscuit’ – these three, but the greatest of these is ‘biscuit’. For reasons explained in the narrative, Mouth could not speak in her youth, and now, as an older person, she recalls what it was like to be able to speak for the first time. The experience is far from pleasant, and the language is rather bleak, but then this isn’t the only person out there who finds change painful.

An unusually long preamble introduces both performers to the audience, and for people with blindness or partial sight, some descriptions are made as to what is going on as the performance progresses. Jess is the sort of person whose appealing manner would make her a much better audio description voiceover on television than some of the bland and disinterested voices out there. A conversation then ensues amongst audience members, who are invited to discuss what they thought of the performance, though invariably people deliberated on whatever was on their minds, from the cost of living to what other shows in London theatres may be worth considering.

This was, I would have thought, of some benefit to most people in the audience, able to release and relax after such an impassioned and intense (if brief) performance. But there was probably more achieved in a short burst of noise that closed out proceedings, in which the audience was invited (invited being the operative word, rather than ‘instructed’), in a distinct diversion for the usual calls to maintain quiet in the theatre, to stand – if in a position to do so – and make as little or as much noise as they wished. It was rather un-British, and on one level seemed like the sort of thing that would be included in a TIE (theatre in education) production in a school, but it was, truth be told, really quite cathartic.

Beckett, quoted by Jess, wishes for Not I to “work on the nerves of its audience, not its intellect”. This production succeeds in being an emotionally stimulating and thought-provoking experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Jess Thom has Tourettes, a condition that means she makes movements and noises she can’t control, called tics.
Following award-winning Backstage In Biscuit Land, she takes on Samuel Beckett’s short play in a theatrical experience that explores neurodiversity and asks who is allowed to perform what and who gets the final say.

All performances are accompanied by a BSL interpreter/performer and are relaxed. This means that if you tic, shout or move about, you’re more than welcome. And the great thing is, everyone can benefit from a relaxed performance.

A Touretteshero and Battersea Arts Centre Production, in association with The Albany.

28 Feb – 17 Mar 2018
NOT I
By Samuel Beckett
A Touretteshero and Battersea Arts Centre Production in association with The Albany
https://www.bac.org.uk/

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