Nestled in the rafters of the Battersea Arts Centre, Jess Thom’s Touretteshero production of Not I shelters from a wintry blizzard. The critic’s darling, Thom’s production first debuted at the Edinburgh Council Showcase as part of the city’s Fringe festival in 2017. Now three performances into a three-week residency, Thom is beaming to a soundtrack of Akala’s Fire in The Booth. She welcomes audience members to take a seat and chirpily declares, tics and all, that us snow-faring spectators will “receive a badge of [foreskin] honour for braving the arctic conditions”. As I take my cushion, Thom introduces herself as a “30 something white woman of average build in a very cool wheelchair, and in a black outfit”. “I also have Tourette’s syndrome,” she continues, “which means I have.. [Kate Winslet].” She smiles and laughs, permitting chortles from the smattering of nervous, senior Beckett academics occupying the backseats. She is accompanied by Charmaine, a British Sign Langauge performer and interpreter who describes herself as “a mixed-race woman in my thirties, also dressed in black”.
It is clear from the offset that the accessibility of the performance has been thoroughly, thoughtfully considered. Exits are marked out for audience members who find the performance too disturbing, as well as noise-cancelling headphones being pointed out. Thom soothes us with the observation that Beckett “wanted the play to work on the audiences’ nerves, not their intellect”. And she’s right on the pulse. The performance is arresting and interspersed (of course) with Thom’s tics’. These manifest as biscuit and hedgehog and appear most commonly in Beckett’s ellipsis. To accommodate for her physical tics, Thom is elevated whilst in her wheel chair; in keeping with the stage directions for Mouth to be eight-feet above stage level. Thom is a hypnotic Mouth, in the sense that one can’t help but slump into a dream-like state as the monologue drifts from one traumatic vignette to another. Narrative is spliced with a morose, disoriented amnesia. Charmaine dutifully signs.
Thom’s performance is followed by the screening of a documentary. In this, Thom speaks with the late Beckett scholar Rosemary Poutney, introduces company members of Touretteshero as well as citing UK Grime as an influence on her delivery of Mouth’s monologue. We follow Thom’s personal backstory and deep, lived attraction to the text. “For a long time, I thought theatre wasn’t a place I could exist” she says, “I wanted to occupy the only seat in the theatre I wouldn’t be asked to leave”. Thom encourages audience members to make conversation with their neighbours and to discuss their thoughts regarding the performance, before opening the floor up to a Q&A. Commentators praise her unique reclamation of the text. She speaks on the importance of visualising disabled people in theatre spaces. Thom has the last word, stating “people are disabled by attitudes that don’t accept people who are different”.
This is an inventive staging of Beckett’s 1972 verbal ambush, which brilliantly reconceptualises the elusive Mouth and questions the conservatism towards productions of Beckett’s work. This is a radical task, where Samuel Beckett’s infamously stubborn legacy as a playwright and director so frequently informs the staging of his work, to the letter. Thom and Touretteshero underscore the humanity at the core of the monologue as one that is both universal, and, specifically analogous with the experiences of disabled peoples.
Words, Ellie Potts.