From cradle to grave and beyond, that's the stretch in these three short Beckett plays mostly associated with Billie Whitelaw (who performed the first two on this same stage) and now triumphantly appropriated by the spirited, melancholic Irish actress Lisa Dwan.
The extraordinary jabbering mouth of Not I, tiny, aggressive, urgent, is all you can see, literally, in the most blacked-out auditorium I've ever experienced. Dwan has done this before, whittling down the time – Beckett wanted the speed of thought in performance – from the usual 12 or 14 minutes to barely nine, but without losing a syllable in her ferocious articulation.
The mouth raves as the mind reels and the audience hallucinates a life with no love of any kind, a glint of happiness in an April field, punctuated with screams, hurtling from birth to old age.
By contrast, Footfalls is an expressive spectacular. Dwan in a white dress, a prematurely aged Miss Havisham, paces up and down a lit strip duetting with her senile mother (her own recorded voice), a poem of childhood and senility; then a sudden switch to the third person, observing old Mrs Winter sitting down to supper with her daughter after worship. How does Dwan do this?
The woman in white yields to the woman in black in Rockaby, white tatters replaced with sequinned black evening gown, rocking slowly in a chair, face and hands eerily isolated in pools of light, an incantatory, rhythmic melding of the figure, quiet at her window, and her own recorded voice, like Krapp's, more memory demanded, "till the day came, in the end came, close of a long day."
Fiona Shaw and Kathryn Hunter have done wonderful performances of the second and third short play – the whole evening lasts barely 50 minutes, with even blacker black-outs in between the items – and each took daring, interpretative liberties.
Dwan, however, sticks to the letter of Beckett's law – apart from expunging the looming auditor from Not I; "Cro-Magnon man mourning across the aeons," J W Lambert said he was – and yet creates something entirely new.
It's as though the essence of a woman's life-in-death has been sifted through a muslin veil, a cry for attention subsumed in the duty of care before reconciliation with mortality, or at least an acceptance.
Dwan, technically brilliant, emotionally fragile, deeply moving, like a wounded bird in a cage of her own devising, has been tutored by Whitelaw and her director Walter Asmus, both close associates of Beckett, so you can assume that His Master's Voice will be satisfied; paradoxically, this is no pious exhumation.
With simple design by Alex Eales, amazingly controlled anti-lighting by James Farncombe, music by Tom Smail and sound design by David McSeveney, this is Beckett in the raw, and the rude, and the timeless reality of his comic despair.
Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby continues at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 18 January, transferring to the Duchess Theatre from 3 February