Samuel Becket‘s 1960s play is a mountain of a challenge for any actress to take on and it must be said that Juliet Stevenson, as Winnie, the impossibly ebullient housewife, embodies the role perfectly. Reminiscent of the seaside though completely surrealistic, we encounter Winnie asleep, buried in the earth, up to her waist.
Winnie follows a well-rehearsed routine between “the bell for waking and the bell for sleep” which turn out to be an incredibly loud horn that got me jumping from my seat a few times. She prays, sings and talks to her husband, Willie (complete with knotted handkerchief and straw boater) who lives in a cave beneath and behind her. In an orderly fashion, she empties the contents of her handbag. Each item is handled with great affection and each gives thought to what it means to be Winnie (a comb, a toothbrush, an empty tube of toothpaste, a bottle of medicine for “loss of spirits…lack of keenness… want of appetite”, a lipstick, a nail file, a revolver and a music box).
With the sun blazing above and from which there is no escape, Winnie talks to Willie (if he is listening at all) and to us, as women do. She fills her time and the void with a stream of consciousness and a series of rituals that are all there to give her a sense of control over a situation that is completely hopeless and utterly out of control. By the second act, poor Winnie is buried up to her neck but, fear not, she remains cheerful and still thankful for “many mercies” such as remembering “one’s classics” and is confident that this will be another happy day. Much of what she says speaks volumes about Becket’s view of men, women and how they relate to one another. Winnie recounts how a passing man asks his wife “Has she anything on underneath?” Winnie accepts that she is literally “stuck in the mud”. She doesn’t question that fact and in that way she is a reflection of all of us who never understand how we ended-up where we did and unable to surmount our own predicaments.
The play is a work of genius in that it is so many things all at once. It is the eternal hell of the housewife’s routine, of a bad marriage “I worship you Winnie be mine and then nothing from that day forth”, of the human condition, of man’s incredible will to survive, of our planet’s demise “Do you think the earth has lost its atmosphere, Willie?” You get to pick the allegory that works for you and when you think that Winnie has said her last, that there is nothing more that she could add, she starts again and creates another memorable image that evokes our fears and coping mechanisms.
To quote Winnie, “That’s what I find so wonderful” about the play. It shows us in a myriad of ways how humans cope with life, how we can always find a person worse than us and how we take comfort from this. How we give a positive spin to our own situation, “What a blessing nothing grows, imagine if all this stuff were to start growing.” Paramount to this coping though is Winnie’s need to be heard, if not listened. Winnie needs an audience to survive and Becket thus illustrate how we cane endure so much as long as someone is there listening to us.
However hard she tries, Winnie’s talking cannot always keep the demons at bay and when the silence descends, we are shown glimpses of the agonizing reality and heartbreaking sorrow that she endures, “Forgive me, Willie, sorrow keeps breaking in.”
According to Knowlson’s biography, Becket said: “Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree … there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life.” He was referring to the life of the modern woman. Then he said: “And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”
Directed by Nathalie Abrahami, Juliette Stevenson is tremendous as Winnie. She delivers this tour de force performance with energy, charm and such naturalness that you forget that you are listening to a woman stuck in a hole. David Beames has the unenviable task of being Willie and does a perfectly decent job of it. The set by Vicki Mortimer is imposing and the sporadic fall of dirt from above (possibly unintentional) reminded me throughout of how Winnie was being buried alive.
You would think that this bleak portrait of life would make for a very somber evening. On the contrary, I would say that people, myself included, left the theatre quite happy. Maybe having seen someone in a worse predicament than ours, even for just a few hours, was all that was needed? I would be remiss, however, to leave out that my male companion was not at all of my opinion and felt it was agony to sit through two hours of theatre with too little action for his 21st century brain. So be careful about your choice of companion.
On this note, I leave you with Winnie, “Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day, after all, another happy day.”