There is suffering for your art, and then there’s the agony that Lisa Dwan goes through on stage.
It has been said that her part in a Samuel Beckett trilogy is the toughest role in acting and she doesn’t disagree.
It has given her a hernia which she has no time to fix.
Trapped nerves in her neck were damaged so badly that she couldn’t eat for two days.
And ever night she suffers from claustrophobia and “complete and utter terror”.
But, Lisa is quick to add: “I love doing it and am very lucky to be able to”.
The Irish actress is performing the three short plays Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby on a tour which includes Birmingham Rep next month. She first took on the daunting but acclaimed project during a sell-out run in the West End and at the Royal Court.
Footfalls features May, who paces back and forth outside the room of her dying mother, while Rockaby sees an old woman sitting in a wooden rocking chair. But it is Not I, the first play, which is so striking and memorable.
It is an intense monologue, set in a pitch-black theatre lit by a single beam of light, focused on a disembodied female mouth which floats eight feet above the stage.
It delivers a stream of consciousness spoken at the speed of thought.
Lisa, 36, was helped in the role by Coventry-born Billie Whitelaw, who performed the part at its 1973 UK premiere and was herself coached by playwright Samuel Beckett.
Lisa starts preparing 40 minutes before the show starts. She takes part in a lighting test before each show, as the spotlight on her mouth can’t move even a millimetre.
“It’s very unforgiving work,” she says with understatement.
Lisa wears half of her Footfalls costume, as after Not I she will have just two minutes to get ready for the next piece.
She covers the bottom half of her face with the thickest black make-up she can find, leaving the lips bare. She then puts tights and a blindfold over her head. She stands on a platform and her stage manager guides her head forward into a hole in a piece of wood. Her head is secured with tight straps so it can’t move at all and her arms are secured in brackets.
“I can’t move, see or hear anything,” says Lisa. “It is very claustrophobic and I’m in complete and utter terror every night. I never get used to it as it never gets any easier.
“The audience feels a little like that too – they are completely in the dark. People who don’t know what they’ve come to see sometimes get a bit freaked out.”
So why put yourself through it?
“Well it’s also the most magical feeling in the world. I often feel I am moving, even though I’m locked in. Part of me feels like I’m taking off around the auditorium. The audience often say they can see my mouth floating about too, even though that’s not possible.”
Then there are all the words to learn and race through. The first time Not I was performed it took 22 minutes and Beckett said it was far too slow. Billie Whitelaw took 14 minutes but Lisa has it down to a record-breaking eight minutes and 45 seconds.
“I could go a little faster actually but Beckett put silences and pauses in that have to be given the same weight.
“It’s not so much one linear thought as a million thoughts coming all at once and interrupting each other. She is trying to tell the narrative of her own life and her mind is interrupting her all the time.”
Forcing the sound out without taking a breath has taken its toll on her body.
“I put so much pressure on my diaphragm that I have a hernia. It’s like an alien fist, poking its hand out of my body. It’s a bit weird but it doesn’t hurt.
“I’m on tour for a year and I need at least five weeks to recover from a hernia op so I won’t be able to do it until I’ve finished.
“I keep trapping nerves in my neck.
“I damaged them so badly a while ago that I couldn’t swallow properly and was on a liquid diet for a couple of days. I have pulled muscles all over my body, even in my buttocks. My chiropractor goes pale when she sees me.
“I’m about to find out how much I can do at a time. I have 40 performances back to back on tour. I’ve just finished a week in Galway and that floored me.
“I am in training for the tour. I run every day, I eat healthily, I go to bed early, I don’t drink or smoke and I live like a nun.
“At the end of the tour, I won’t perform Not I again.
“And all three pieces are exhausting, they all have their own difficulties.
“When I first looked at the sparse script for Footfalls I thought it would be easy in contrast to all the words for Not I, but it’s actually very hard to perform and I always feel exposed afterwards.
“The work is incredibly hard and emotionally very demanding. But it’s so worth it – I am invited to be so much more than a woman.
“It’s exciting and I am really looking forward to going in tour. Why should theatre like this just be in London?
“There’s something very universal about Beckett’s work.
“I don’t like the pretentiousness that can surround it. I find his work to be literal and very immediate, easy to access.
“His work is so gripping, brave, compelling and unforgettable.”
* The Beckett trilogy comes to Birmingham Rep from September 16-20. For tickets, ring 0121 236 4455 or go to www.birmingham-rep.co.uk