Beside The Sea – Southbank Centre – March 2012

The sea had lost all its colour, it wasn’t blue at all, it looked like a torrent of mud. It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered.

I am still struck by my first reading of Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea: a steaming Sunday afternoon in a London backyard, breath barely drawn, eyes, edged with tears, clutching to the stark narrative.  Peirene Press’ adage is somewhat thus: “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single-sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film.” (TLS) and Beside the Sea is exemplary.  One reads it in one breath, unwavering.  It is a tragedy.  Indeed it near’ obeys the three unities of Greek tragedy: time, place and plot. It is grim and yet so terribly beautiful that it stands also as a flawless work of art.

Beside The Sea will be performed by Lisa Dwan in the Southbank Centre in March 2012.  I had the opportunity to see her dramatic reading of the monologue last July at Shorelines, Literature Festival of the Sea.  Her rendition of the novella was so apt, so terrible, as the French might put it, to mean both terrible and beautiful, that I am delighted to see it will be performed again.

Below: An abbreviated version of my original response.

Petite, elfin, with a beautiful mouth stretching to smile on meeting, Lisa Dwan comes from county Athlone in the depths of Ireland.  The mouth is not immaterial, nor is her background:  Lisa is best known in the UK for her role in Samuel Beckett’s monologue, Not I, in which a disembodied Mouth, lit-up eight-foot above stage-level, performs an angst ridden monologue, a logorrhoea, an internal scream.

Although Bord de Mer was written and published as a novella, Olmi, dramatist and actress, has apparently also construed it as a dramatic monologue.  Written in the first person, present-tense the text gives itself fluently to theatre.  Lisa first performed Olmi/Hunter’s text, an abridged version of the novella, at the English launch of Beside the Sea, at the French Institute in 2010.  Tonight, sat on a chair beneath a spotlight, barely glancing at the sheets of paper in her hands, Lisa’s voice embodies this harrowing female character for a second time.

One cannot overestimate the heartstopping prowess of Lisa’a handling of the monologue, which commences with the mother’s words: We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.   Directly launching the spectator into the intimate directness of one woman’s terror before the world and before the responsibility that comes with motherhood.  As Lisa performs, the parallel with Not I becomes evident – When they were both asleep it was hard for me.  The talking started all of its own in my head, I hate that, thinking is a nasty piece of work.  Recalling the buzzing suffered by Mouth:  …yes…all the time the buzzing…so called…in the ears… though actually not in the ears at all…in the skull… dull roar in the skull…  Lisa wowed for her performance of Not I in under ten minutes at the Southbank centre, and yet it is not so much the speed that wows but the capturing of an expression, of a consciousness, in the mere mumblings of a mouth.  Likewise tonight Lisa stuns.  Sat on a chair she becomes, through her reading alone – such is the art of theatre – that mother, those two boys, in that brown hotel room.  Beckett is cited as saying of Mouth: I knew that woman in Ireland.  I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.  So, we recognise the figure on stage, as much in peripheral figures of society as in our own core.

A brief pause, before the reading flits to the final passages:

I decided to start with the the little’un first.

The mother smothers her two boys with the hotel pillows. Despite the dramatic intensity, heightened by Lisa’s rendition, the narrative is so tight, so engaged with the mother’s seeming detachment during the infanticide, that only with the poignant final paragraph does the act hit home:

I had two dead children. And them?  What did they have? 

I looked at them and I saw.  I saw something I’d never thought of, something I’d never imagined ever: Kevin’s face was turned towards the wall, and Stan’s towards the window.  They had their backs to each other.  They weren’t together, no, each had gone his separate way.  They weren’t joined together in death, they’d lost each other there.

And I screamed.

Read my full response to Beside The Sea: Salon and Dramatic Reading here.

Read what The Guardian wrote about it here.

Beside The Sea – Southbank Centre -7th-8th March 2012.

Beside the Sea, Veronique Olmi
Translated by Adriana Hunter
Published by Peirene Press, London 2010.
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-2-0

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