I had heard Lisa read from the book. I’ve seen her outstanding performance of Beckett’s Not I. I trusted her to do a good job and expected the audience to shed a few tears. But I didn’t anticipate crying myself. After all I know the text inside out and have talked about the story many times.
The staging is ingeniously minimalistic. A muslin curtain draped over a big empty screen in the background. White beach pebbles on the floor. A stool with a jacket in the middle of the stage. Where are we? A beach? A mental institution? A prison? Or perhaps inside the blank mind of the heroine where only vague shadows flicker across the empty canvass?
The actress wears a plain white nightie and boots. During the first 50 minutes she walks around on the stage, puts the jacket on, kicks stones, jumps on the stool, scratches her arms while she tells us about her sad journey to the seaside with her two children. Her voice oscillates between love and anger, calm and desperation. She is a woman at the end of her tether.
I follow the performance with interest and notice with delight that I am not bored. So the play must be good.
Lisa now kneels down on the floor. Her hands rest motionless in her lap as she begins to narrate the shocking end. Nothing is happening on stage any longer. Whatever we see, we see in our minds. The auditorium is utterly still, no one breathes, no one moves. I feel a knot in my chest, for a moment I fight the tears. Then I let them run.
“And I screamed.” The final sentence of the book. It is also the last sentence pronounced on stage. Then Lisa arches back, the veins on her neck protruding. As she slowly folds over she produces an animal like sound, an inward-scream, so desperate and lonely. I’ve never heard anything even remotely similar on stage or in film. A cry for humanity.
The lights go out. Total darkness. Still no one moves. The lights come back on slowly. Someone starts clapping. We all join in. Lisa walks to the middle of stage with a smile and bows. A relief washes over the auditorium. She smiles! It was only a play. For a few minutes that notion had dropped out of many people’s mind. We are reconnected to the reality of the Purcell Room.
“You are very quiet.” I say to Peirene as we walk back across Hungerford Bridge to the tube station at the end of the evening.
“I am absolutely stunned by adoration.” She says in a coarse voice. “I still feel emotional.” For a moment we continue our way in silence. Then she adds with a little laugh. ”And I can’t even be jealous. Lisa’s performance was just too good to make comparisons. Even I have to admit: I couldn’t compete.”