"If anyone's done Happy Days and knows what this is for..." Billie Whitelaw's appeal to the audience of her Evening With Samuel Beckett on being mystified by one of her own personal props is characteristic of the evening as a whole: on the one hand endearingly scatty and informal, on the other the definitive Beckett actress.
In the only theatre-oriented event of this year's Nick Cave-curated Meltdown season on the South Bank, Whitelaw did not give a lecture: she chatted, even rambled – breaking off some ten minutes into a disquisition on Eh Joe with "Actually, I'm not going to do this now..." and telling the same anecdote about both that play and Footfalls (Whitelaw, seeking advice on her character: "Am I dead?" – Beckett: "Well, let's just say you're not quite there"). She was quite candid about her relationship with Beckett's texts: when first presented with the script of Play, she said, "I understood not one word", and has always been less concerned with trying to elicit meanings than doing full justice to the "music" of the texts, a point emphasised by her occasional trait of unself-consciously beating out rhythms or conducting herself with one hand whilst reading.
The minimalism of Beckett's direction was evoked by her recollections of his first-ever note to her, concerning the length of a pause – "Will you make those three dots two dots?" – and his scrupulous revision of the numerous "Ah well"s and "Oh well"s in Happy Days; the latter story also illustrated the playwright's concern and sensitivity as, realising Whitelaw's frustration, he quietly removed himself from rehearsals for two days to allow her to assimilate the changes. Several times on Sunday evening, particularly regarding Eh Joe, Whitelaw lamented the fact that Beckett had never publicly read or recorded any of his own work.
Her own readings were, of course, magnificent. Although the closing Rockaby suffered from the occasional audience cough (a bad move, perhaps, to have preceded it with a question-and-answer session), Eh Joe and two extracts from Happy Days commanded utter, compelled silence in the Queen Elizabeth Hall; the remarkable television version of Not I was also shown, with an eight-foot image of Whitelaw's jabbering mouth filling the entire screen. Disarmingly, she even rattled off the music-hall ditty "All My Life I've Wanted To Be A Barrow-Boy", which she would apparently use to lighten the tone of rehearsals with Beckett. One or two of her responses to audiences questions gave faint hints that Whitelaw's previously reported decision to retire from theatre may not quite be absolute, but even an informal evening such as this gives a powerful reminder of the body of work she has already bequeathed in her stage and screen collaborations with Beckett.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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