Battersea Arts Centre, London
Samuel Beckett’s 12-minute, virtuoso monologue Not I is performed by Mouth, the only visible portion of the woman who speaks to the audience. An otherwise silent character, the Auditor, stands on stage and listens, making only four gestures during the play. The script is a ferocious outpouring of emotion, as the nameless woman who has been prevented from speaking lets her life, marked by disappointment and mysterious trauma, flow.
It is technically tough, with the pace of the language a fiendish test of capacity to breathe. It is also physically demanding, with the performer suspended eight feet above the stage and often tied, in the dark, to a sort of crucifix to ensure only the mouth can move. And Not I is formally demanding too, as the Beckett Estate is rarely enthusiastic about alterations to the author’s instructions. The performance by Jess Thom, an actor with Tourette’s Syndrome who also uses a wheelchair, is therefore not only a major achievement but something of a stage landmark.
Already acclaimed in Edinburgh for this and previous shows, Thom was given permission to perform Not I, as she explains in a post-show discussion, with none of the anticipated problems. To their credit, Beckett’s descendants saw the close connection between the play, an involuntary explosion of language, and the multiple involuntary words that punctuate Thom’s life.
Her tics – frequently the word ‘biscuit’ – are for the most part kept at bay by the monologue, which replaces the language she cannot control with uncontrolled language that, paradoxically, puts her in charge. At times Thom’s exclamations seem an extension of the play, not least when she declares: “I am an umbrella stand.” The performance is relaxed, designed to accommodate anyone with conditions that might usually prevent them from going to live performances. As Thom points out, the only way she has been able to attend regularly is by appearing on stage.
Staging work so it can be seen by those normally excluded is admirable, but Thom’s performance does more than that: it takes us to the heart of the play, and reshapes. She shines a spotlight on the hierarchy of communications: on those who do not have the means, or the right, to speak.
The staging makes the theatrical seem natural and inevitable, with performance the only means of communication available for those struggling to be heard. Thom brings something entirely different to the work, a direct response invited by Beckett’s experimental writing. She is partnered by Charmaine Wombwell, as the Auditor, who signs the entire performance in BSL, a feat of physical dexerity comparable to Thom’s performance. The combination is entirely compelling, and even funny, as the audience quickly learns the BSL sign for ‘biscuit’. The evening, complete with pre-show exclamation, performance, short film, audience discussion and noise-making ‘splurge’ is over in an hour, but it is an exciting, significant and rewarding hour. In adding herself to the short list of actors who’ve tackled Not I, Jess Thom has made a powerful statement, one which challenges conceptions of what theatre is, and what it can do.