‘I rip off my skin and give him the guts’ – Lisa Dwan on her approach to Beckett

Lisa Dwan is on Zoom in the back of a cab, her face glowing as she talks about the surprises of the past year. “I feel guilty saying this because I’m very aware of how much suffering there has been but lockdown is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’m somebody who needed to be grounded, and I estaba grounded.”

In the run-up to last spring, Dwan was single and super-busy, shuttling between cities for work: Belfast for Jed Mercurio’s Bloodlands, Londres to film Colm Tóibín’s Pale Sister, New Jersey for her lecturing gigs at Princeton (she is a Samuel Beckett specialist, famously tutored by Billie Whitelaw). Entonces, she met a “kind, handsome man” called Paul, who was at Jermyn Street theatre in London on the same night as her to watch a trio of short Beckett plays, directed by Trevor Nunn. One of them, Eh Joe, featured a recorded monologue by Dwan.

A few days later, in March, she boarded a plane, hoping to hunker down in New York for the duration of the pandemic. Just before takeoff, she decided there was far more for her in London and got off. “I fell in love with my life again here. I also fell in love and developed a relationship [with Paul], learned how to cook, ordered a cello on Amazon and got someone to teach me a Bach prelude over Zoom. I was recording poetry every night and putting it out there. All just simple stuff that gives me joy.”

Dwan is now pregnant with their child – a girl. When she is out of the taxi and back home in Hampstead, north London, she shifts sideways to reveal a six-month bump. So a chance meeting at the theatre sparked a new life. So much for Beckettian nihilism, I say. sí, she replies. “I thought Beckett was going to send me on one long, lonely, miserable life path but it turns out he had a few tricks up his sleeve!"

This month, Dwan is back to Beckett with Happy Days, directed by Nunn at Riverside Studios in London, marking the play’s 60th anniversary. She plays Winnie, trapped in a mound of earth, while her companion, Willie, buzzes nearby: “I’m buried up to my waist and the baby is in the mound with me. Some people quote Beckett’s line: ‘They give birth astride of a grave’ [from Waiting for Godot]. Well, if the mound is a metaphor for the grave, it’s funny that under this mound is life – and she’s kicking away. It’s the most amazing sensation.”

Dwan is happily juggling rehearsals in London with the filming of the crime drama Top Boy en España, but is beginning to feel the weight of other people’s assumptions about motherhood. “They have already started to visit me with their opinions – ‘You don’t want to go back to work’ or ‘You shouldn’t be doing Happy Days that late in your pregnancy. It’ll be too taxing.’”

She has taken to showing them a photograph of herself at the Old Vic in 2016, taken 30 minutes before curtain call for a one-woman play, No’s Knife, which she adapted from Beckett prose pieces. “At the time, I had pneumonia. I’m on the floor getting my legs painted with blood. My stage manager is running over lines with me while this is happening and I’m attached to an intravenous drip. I have had to take out this picture to show them I can multitask.

“I am not underestimating what this life change is going to be and I’m fully prepared for it. I’m ready to make this little being my focus but I don’t think it would be doing her a service if I lost ‘me’ in that altogether. I have a duty to keep both hearts beating.”

Happy Days is, quizás, the perfect Beckett play for a pregnancy too, not only because of the practicalities – “I’m sitting down for all of it for God’s sake!” – but also because of the indomitable nature of Winnie, who defies her desolate fate with smiles, snatches of poetry and statements of joy. “She is such a celebration of life, so full of resourcefulness and humour. She’s a fantastic role model for me and my little one. My grandmother was 99 when she died and even in the last weeks of her life she would remember her school poetry – the last stubborn vestiges to leave her mind. I was a bit of a strange kid myself, I committed poems to memory from a very young age, and they are still my companions.”

Before the acting and poetry there was dance, from her first lesson at the age of three, to performing with Rudolf Nureyev at 12 in Coppélia (when the star visited Ireland with the Cleveland San Jose Ballet) and ballet school at 14, until a knee injury put paid to that vocation. “I didn’t know what to do with my life," ella dice, but someone reminded her that she was a Dwan so “you must be able to act”. Her father, Liam Dwan, was known as an amateur actor in her home town of Athlone, County Westmeath. “I had an aunt Rita who was an amazing actress. I had an uncle Dennis who was an opera singer, and there was Pauline … they were all on the stage.”

She remembers being dragged out of class in her first year of school. “I was told Miss O’Connor wanted to see me in the gym. I walked in and Miss O’Connor was teaching some kids on the stage and she said, ‘You’re Liam Dwan’s daughter, aren’t you? Could you show these girls how to walk across the stage like a duck?’ So I did.”

She first encountered Beckett on television when she was 12. “I walked into our living room and there was a man’s haunted face – I didn’t know it was Jack MacGowran [in Eh Joe]. There was a viper-like, relentless voice and I really didn’t understand what I was listening to. But I couldn’t look away.”

Dwan speaks of Beckett in lyrical, almost romantic language, as if she is engaged in a love affair of the mind. "All he wants from you is everything you can give him. Every thought, every nuance, every inflection, every ounce of energy – he wants it all. No one has wanted and asked so much of me and offered so much in return.”

Playing the disembodied mouth that trips out urgent words in Not I was life-changing for her. “I was a blond, blue-eyed, pretty actress in my early 20s playing one vacuous role after another. Entonces, all of a sudden, I’m asked to play consciousness … To have your body removed as a woman, to have been spoiled with a landscape as vast as consciousness, changed me for ever.”

Dwan has defended Beckett’s exacting stage directions and his estate’s strict guarding of them – a clown company of female and non-binary actors recently raised the strict gender rule around performing Waiting for Godot. How imaginative can we be with Beckett’s work if we are bound by such instructions? “If you take something as rigid – stage-direction wise – as Not I and you compare me with Billie Whitelaw, you couldn’t get two more different performances. Given the emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual depths that he is mining, I’m grateful that I have the railing of his artistic structure to hang on to while I’m being that brave. Then I can rip my skin off and give him the guts without it being incontinent, or an indulgent outpouring.”

Dwan recently played Ismene in Colm Tóibín’s Pale Sister, a radically reimagined version of Sophocles’s Antigone. Ella performed it on stage in Dublin in 2019 and did it again for the BBC’s Lights Up season. Dwan says the seeds of the play were first sown in 2016, when Tóibín said he wanted to write a play for her. Donald Trump was running his presidential campaign and Dwan could see noxious, familiar female motifs rearing up in the media and his rhetoric: “I felt, like most women, such a sense of despair but I also wanted to go back to our earliest narratives and see where the archetypes began.”

They are still very much being played out today, she believes. “There’s a lot of Medea in the media’s treatment of Meghan Markle. And why do the likes of Greta Thunberg receive the same treatment as Antigone?” What she is trying to do is to create alternative, broader role models for the next generation that go beyond both the toxic archetype and the well-meaning hashtag. Beckett is part of that endeavour. She speaks of the liberations offered by his characters – their defiance, their ability to transcend the body, but also their suffering. Take Winnie in Happy Days: “That line: ‘To be is to be seen’ – Willie doesn’t see her. Had Winnie ever had a choice, what could have happened?"

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