Arts Theatre. Directed by Peter Hall. Felicity Kendal as Winnie, Col Farrell as Willie. Performance time 1-1/2 hours including 20-minute intermission
I remember Felicity Kendal from Stoppard’s Arcadia some years back. This is a complete transformation, blonde wig, bosomy décolleté, arrestingly strange accent that sounded sometimes Anglo-Irish (i.e. West Briton) and sometimes upper-class English, and occasionally like Billie Burke or the good witch in the Wizard of Oz. This is not a criticism. The diction is superb, the characterization is utterly convincing, wistful, happy and sad by turns, and fully and deeply felt throughout. Despite the intermittent presence of Winnie’s husband Willie, this is effectively a one-woman / one actor show.
The setting is a striking departure from any mounting I’ve seen, or seen pictures of, of this play. The “earth” in which Winnie is buried (in Act I, to her waist; in Act II, to her neck) is represented by a steeply slanted wide ribbon of earth that spirals inward to Winnie at the center. Her bag is placed nearby, and there is a slight spur to her right on which she can balance the revolver, its muzzle pointing directly at her. At the opening the light is dazzling and nearly blinding, an assault on the eyes comparable to the double assault on the ears from the alarm that, after two deafening rings, awakens her to another happy day. In Act II, the alarm is even more insistent and just as raucous. Meanwhile the lighting modulates, for the most part unnoticed — though I sensed a long, slow cue to something more moderate, even a bit shadowy, about two thirds of the way through Act I.
This setting helped to make more material the conceptual metaphor devised by Beckett, on which the play hangs: burial in earth (not in sand) as a plangent figure for the general human predicament of being caught helpless in a hostile, alien, relentless place not of our own devising. The alarm, left completely unexplained, functions in the same way that the whistle functions in Beckett’s Act without Words I: we are on a stage, on which is constructed a fictional but transparent reality, and we are never to know the dramatist or the stage manager. That is, the world Winnie inhabits is a completely opaque one, inexplicable as it is inevitable; there is some cause, some mechanism that has marooned her — us — here; and there is nothing for it but to make the best of it, even though we occasionally break down and cry over it. And yet the presence of Willie serves as a kind of counter-example. He is as hapless and silent as Winnie is hopeless yet optimistic and loquacious. “That’s what’s wonderful about … ” she is fond of saying, able as she is to find some shred of brightness in even the most despairful of situations.
The performance of Winnie is itself very much of the theatre, theatrical, a tour de force written by a master dramatist for a master actor. The memorization of this effective hour-and-a-half monologue is itself something of a feat, as is performing it eight or nine times a week. But Beckett makes it easier to commit to memory by building into it so much pattern in the language, repetition and variation aplenty, a special music of its own rooted in a tremendous psychic energy that goes far to explain the indomitable will to survive that Winnie has and at the same time the energies of the role and its secure rootedness in experience inspired in the actress. Finally, it is as much of a tour de force for Beckett himself, whose continual response to the bleakness of the universe is to write a play that ends up celebrating our — and his own — way of assuring ourselves of our presence. Beckett’s plays are all more extensive analogies to Didi’s answer to the boy, in Godot, who asks, What shall I tell Mr. Godot, sir? Didi: Tell him … tell him … that we were here.