Review: Beckett Trilogy (Canadian Stage)

Lisa Dwan in Beckett Trilogy_ROCKABY. Cred_ John HaynesCanadian Stage presents Beckett Trilogy; a trio of the playwright’s one-woman pieces, in Toronto

Irish actor Lisa Dwan performs quite a feat in her production of Beckett Trilogy, playing now at Canadian Stage. Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby are short, one-woman pieces from Samuel Beckett‘s later period, all of which require a vocal mastery of cadence and an existential mastery of loneliness. 

Beckett is most known for Waiting For Godot, and with good reason: it’s a brilliant play. But it also has four male characters and while gender blind casting is possible, Beckett himself strenuously objected to it. So perhaps some people are unaware that Beckett wrote some wonderfully meaty roles for women. Happy Days, one of my favourites, is an example and this trilogy is another. Though Beckett himself didn’t write the three of them to be played together, they work well with each other.

They aren’t as funny as Happy Days or Godot, which is something I rather missed, but not all suffering and isolation needs to come with chuckles. Each of the trilogy is hypnotic in it’s ghostly depiction of desolate lives. This effect is a combination of Dwan’s skill with rhythm and pitch, her physical ability, and the production design which kept us primarily in the dark with only the barest, briefest light.

Even the “Exit” signs were turned off. It was a very visceral experience, being in utter darkness before and between the three segments. I kept closing my eyes and reopening them to see no difference – no ambient light from streetlights, moon or electronics. My companion said that he had been doing the same thing.

This made our eyes crave the light when it appeared: first, in Not I, as a tiny spotlight trained on a disembodied mouth spewing a stream-of-consciousness rant that was purposefully impossible to fully follow.

We could pick out fleeting images or ideas – she had been in court once, for example, and she was experiencing some dissociative disorder. But most of the time it was words piled up against words so fast, and with such a tenuous connection to each other, that it was futile to attempt discerning any meaning. Instead, all you could do was relax into the rhythm, wait for the next flash of coherence, and contemplate meaninglessness – which is, I expect, exactly as Beckett intended.

In Footfalls, a lady appearing much like Miss Havisham, walks back and forth in a narrow beam of light, her footsteps like a metronome. Sometimes she speaks with her mother, a voice echoing from the back of the stage, who is bedridden and dying – or already dead. The walking lady seems to be called May, although she tells a story of someone called Amy and her mother and they are likely the same two people. May’s arm positioning never changes but Dwan conveys a thousand pounds of despair with her face and voice and endless walking.

Finally, in Rockaby, a woman rocks in a rocking chair with the same metronome quality as in Footfalls. She also interacts with a bodiless voice, though in this case the voice narrates her quotidian life which consists of sitting by her window hoping to catch sight of someone else in a nearby window. The narration is repetitive, in the style of Beckett and absurdism in general, and also extremely sad in an Eleanor Rigby-reminiscent way. The lighting is once again sparse and powerful: a beam of light from offstage catches in the beads of the fancy mourning dress she wears as she rocks and rocks and rocks.

I wonder if the running order wouldn’t be more effective if Not I were placed in the middle instead of first. It is different from the other two as it has a faster cadence, a single voice, and a few sly humorous moments – not laugh lines but perhaps smirk lines. Other than that, I can find no fault with the show. Those who prefer realism and plot will, of course, not be amused: but this is Beckett.


  • Beckett Trilogy plays at Canadian Stage,  Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, until November 1
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm, except Friday when the shows are at 7 pm; there are matinees on Wednesdays the 21st and 28th, and Saturday and Sunday at 1 pm
  • Tickets are from $24 to $69 and are available online, or by phone at 416-368-3110, or in person at the box office

Photo of Lisa Dwan by John Haynes