Samuel Beckett wrote brilliant, multi-faceted female characters, so when quintessential actress and his personal favourite, Billie Whitelaw, passed away in December of last year, she left an irreplaceable space in theatre.
It seems, then, that Scottish actress and comic Karen Dunbar had her work cut out for her, playing one of Whitelaw’s most iconic roles, Winnie, for the Tron’s women-driven Mayfesto season. She admitted to Janice Forsyth in a recent interview on BBC Radio Scotland that she wasn’t aware of much of Beckett’s ouevre, prior to taking on the part.
Thankfully, this very much works in her favour, as Dunbar brings a freshness to the role. She is nothing short of a revelation- her physicality that of a 1930s Vaudeville movie star, all eye rolls, tongue lolling over teeth and elasticy Harpo Marx smile. As with so many of Beckett’s characters, Winnie is hampered by a physical restriction, buried up to, first her waist, then neck, in scorched earth – possibly a metaphor for being both stuck within the limitations of a domestic role, the impossiblity of cogent communication and a troubled marriage. Thus, accoutrements of femininity – parasol, lipstick, nail-file,mirror, the pearl choker around her neck and her old music box, become seeming signifiers of something oppressive: a lost youth she can never regain.
Constantly, she asks taciturn husband Willie (Tron Artistic Director Andy Arnold) who is initially barely seen, if she is desired, or loveable. That need, the constant affirmation, is played without an ounce of self-pity, though; rather, it is the need inherent in all of us as we are swallowed up by the earth – a marching, unsparing memento mori. It isn’t hard to draw parallels with the spectre of the Cold War, to the paranoia of a couple who are no longer able to find pleasure in each other or themselves.
Human fallibility simmers underneath and Willie’s occasional grunts and rustles of newspaper provide the tuneless counterpoint to Winnie’s increasing despair. He next re-emerges in top hat, tails, spats and grey moustache a la Fantomas, but fails to stretch out to Winnie. She is unreachable to him. She flits from maternal comfort, to love, to open contempt for him, often within the space of a minute.
Speaking of an old wax dolly, which she mimics by batting her eyelashes, there are now only faint glimmers of her girlish self, cradling her music box. The mutable cyclical dialogues (often to herself) are matched by an ominous bell, growing wonkier by the hour, the reverby sound design by Kevin Murray a crescendo in the haunting second half. Winnie, once bright, stoical and glamorous is now haggard, all hope spent, and her voice rings out like a shipwrecked lady from a cruise liner, or a canary which sings to reaffirm its status as a living creature. She sings the music box song – pure, yet also broken – from ‘Nothing Left to Do’, until she falls, as all of us must, off her perch.
A beautiful, bleakly hilarious adaptation which stands alongside Arnold’s finest.