Billie Whitelaw is an extremely talented actress who is also astonishingly good-looking and sexy; sometimes her physical beauty actually distracts from the role she is playing. Although Whitelaw could easily get steady employment in conventional roles, she chooses to take risks in unusual and experimental roles. She is generally regarded as the world’s leading interpreter of the plays of Samuel Beckett … and here, giving a solo turn in Beckett’s short drama ‘Not I’, she burnishes that well-earned reputation.
For all their weird symbolism, Beckett’s plays are distinctly theatrical. He often imposes bizarre physical restrictions on his actors, for example in ‘Endgame’ requiring two of them to perform their roles entirely inside dustbins. In his play ‘Happy Days’, the heroine spends all of Act One buried to her waist, unable to move her lower body … and then throughout Act Two she is buried to the neck! I saw Billie Whitelaw in a stage performance of ‘Happy Days’: the mound of sand immediately below her upper body served to frame and emphasise her bosom, pleasantly distracting me during her long monologues.
In Beckett’s short stage play ‘Not I’, the main character is a mouth: a woman’s disembodied mouth, framed in a tight spotlight that negates the rest of her body. While this mouth conducts a long obsessive monologue, the only other character — identified in Beckett’s script as the Auditor — is a silent shadowy figure, looming at the edge of the darkness.
Although the Irish-born Beckett wrote his plays in French — the original title of ‘Not I’ was ‘Pas Moi’ — this play’s English title is intentionally a pun. The drama’s protagonist is a mouth, not an eye. (Not eye, geddit?) Also, this female character — identified in Beckett’s script only as ‘Mouth’ — refuses to refer to herself in the first person. She rants obsessively about an unnamed woman whom she identifies as ‘she’ and ‘her’, yet it is clear that she is speaking of herself. Did Beckett intend this to represent disassociation? This film version of ‘Not I’ dispenses with the Auditor. Billie Whitelaw gives an impressive performance as Mouth … a performance in which her sex appeal and her beauty are entirely withheld, as all we see is a tight close-up of her mouth.
The woman laments that she is old and dying, and has resented her life literally from birth, when she was prematurely ejected from the womb. She complains of a buzzing in her head. She obsesses so much about gynaecological matters that it becomes clear to us that this disembodied mouth is also meant to be a vagina. This woman’s existence is defined entirely by her reproductive organs. (Unlike in real life, yes?)
Billie Whitelaw gives a brave and energetic performance here, in a role in which all of her aspects other than her voice, her emotions and her mouth are irrelevant. With nothing else for us to see during this rant, we focus obsessively on the physical structure of her mouth, her lips, her teeth, her saliva. I dislike it when film critics (usually male) fixate on some tiny physical imperfection in the face or body of an attractive actress. In Billie Whitelaw’s case, any defects in her physical beauty are very minor indeed. Yet here, in ‘Not I’, we are forced to notice every dental occlusion, every flaw of her gum lines. Beckett’s script and conception reduce this woman’s identity to a single physical organ — a mere orifice — and prevent us from seeing her in any other way. I would call this play deeply misogynist, except that all of Beckett’s work reveals a profound contempt for the human race in general, so I have difficulty believing that Beckett had an especial hatred for women.
I’ve seen many of Billie Whitelaw’s stage, screen and television performances, and I’ve never yet seen her make a wrong move. She’s brilliant here, in a role that prevents her from relying on her good looks. The play itself is deeply disturbing, but this was clearly Beckett’s intention. I give Whitelaw credit for being true to the work, and not playing for our sympathy. I’ll rate this ‘Not I’ 9 out of 10.