Review 2.


No’s Knife a selection of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing at The Old Vic

Conceived by Lisa Dwan and co-directed by Joe Murphy

Cast: Lisa Dwan.


SIS: So I Saw… No’s Knife 

In No’s Knife Lisa Dwan performs her own compilation of Beckett’s Texts For Nothing – a selection of fragmentary writings, written in the 1950s as Europe attempted to discover itself post-WW2, that refuse the conventional relationship between reader, narrator and plot. As Eliot Krieger puts it ‘the “I” that speaks throughout the Texts is not a person, but is the text itself’ [1]. Dwan paradoxically embodies this disembodied “I” in wonderful shifts of character, tone and wit. She slips lithely from the voice of a frightened little boy to a grizzled old man (and sometimes old woman); in the same breath she is both honestly emotional and cuttingly sarcastic; she dives into an attitude and accent that is reminiscent of the Godfather, and then swoops into an accentuated high lilt of her native Irish. Her vocal range is simply awesome – and it is this that allows her to embody that disembodied “I” so brilliantly for she is at once, and convincingly, one person and many.


For 70-minutes Dwan’s monologue enlivens bleak and isolating settings, creating an impression of a state between life and death, that is both harrowing and hopeful. Initially we are met by a projection of what looks like a black gaping wound – with wiry, seeping rivulets of blood running out of it – all projected onto a billowing screen. Suddenly, this ‘wound’ opens – revealing that it is in fact a closed eye and the streams of ‘blood’ eyelashes. Then we are shown film of Dwan, suspended in water layered with audio of her laboured breathing – is she drowning? or is this symbolic of amnion? is she about to be born or die? No’s Knife asks these questions right up until Dwan’s final gasp – as she steps out onto a platform amidst the audience, looking upwards, face brightly lit – when the lights cut abruptly, mid-gasp. It’s a double-edged sword of sorts.

This dualistic play is constant. Dwan is dressed in a brown slip, that becomes gradually more grimed and tattered from the waist down. Her legs are blackened and covered in gaping wounds, in contrast to her pale and lively upper half – as she throws her arms out energetically in fits of character. Sometimes she is mobile, as in scenlisa-dwan-in-nos-knife-at-the-old-vic-photo-by-manuel-harlan-3.jpges two and four – where she plays in puddles in a wasteland of rocks and tree stumps. Sometimes she’s immobilised from the waist down, as in scenes one and two – the former sitting in a craggy hole, in what simultaneously resembles the ‘wound’ in the projection and a birds-eye view of wartime trenches; the latter she is suspended in a cage-like seat, hanging in utter darkness, and occasionally being addressed by bureaucratic and impersonal voices:


This, along with Beckett’s wonderfully ambiguous prose, so skilfully and variously conveyed by Dwan, makes No’s Knife difficult not to read politically. As Dwan implores of the seemingly endless darkness she is surrounded by,

‘Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me? Answer simply, someone answer simply.’ 

as she oscillates between moments of entrapment and movement, Fintan O’Toole’s linking Beckett’s writings to the ‘limbo of refugee camps’ [2] seems apt. But further, the notion of a search for identity – or even needing to have one at all – has a broader resonance with the state of Europe and, on a more personal level with oneself as a European (or not, as the case may be).

It was this perhaps that led to the apparently instinctive minute (although audible) exclamations of assent and occasional chuckles of the audience. Sometimes these all converged, when something of Dwan’s monologue chimed as true for the collective cultural consciousness of the audience, but most often these occurred independently of one another, as each person saw something in the meandering dialogue (or the attitude with which Dwan conveyed it) that was applicable to them personally.

In an interview with the Old Vic Dwan explains her view of Beckett: ‘There’s a great boundary-less quality about Beckett, it’s very democratic in a lot of ways – a lot of people think that Beckett’s for the academics. I think Beckett’s a lot more guttural, a lot more immediate than that’ [3]. The audiences’ reactions seems to confirm that she manages to convey this. However, in the same interview she says that she hopes to prompt people to ‘examine their own wounds’. I can only suggest that she has succeeded in doing this by recounting what chimed instinctively with me:

a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough. I’m making progress…’

I wonder if others went away from No’s Knife similarly armed.


More information about the production can be found at:


by Emily Swettenham

13th October 2016.



[1] Keiger, E. 1977. ‘Samuel Beckett’s Texts For Nothing: Explication and Exposition’. In: MLN, Vol.92. No.5. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2016].

[2] O’Toole, F. In: Taylor, P. 2016. ‘No’s Knife, Old Vic, London review: Lisa Dwan is back with Beckett in another extraordinary tour de force’. The Independent. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2016].

[3] The Old Vic. 2016. NO’S KNIFE | Lisa Dwan interview with Joe Murphy. . Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2016].