Extracts from an unscripted interview with Billie Whitelaw
by James Knowlson
A television recording made on 1 February 1977 for the
University of London Audio-Visual Centre
© of text Journal of Beckett Studies © of television recording
University of London Audio-Visual Centre
JK Over the past few years, Billie Whitelaw has been very closely involved indeed in a number of Beckett’s plays and has worked several times under Beckett’s direction or when he was assisting the director. Her moving performance as the Mouth in Not I and as the female figure of May pacing relentlessly up and down in Footfalls will be remembered for a long time by most of those who saw them.
Billie, your introduction to Samuel Beckett’s work, as an actress at least, must have been with the National Theatre’s production of Play at the Old Vic in 1964, directed by George Devine. What can you remember most clearly about that production? It is a long time ago, I know.
BW It is a long time ago. And I must say, to my shame, that I knew nothing about Samuel Beckett at all. All I knew was that he was a writer who wrote some strange writings that had nothing to do with me at all. When the script of Play was sent to me, although I did not understand it, the actual text moved me very much, although I did not understand why. I was not frightened about tackling this play at all. My image is of Beckett in a raincoat, very quiet, very thoughtful; George Devine, the same. Obviously, Devine and Beckett worked very closely together . . . There was a oneness . . . I’m just rattling off memories as they come, images. Rows between Sir Laurence Olivier and Ken Tynan turning up at rehearsals and saying ‘you cannot possibly go as quickly as this’ and everyone keeping very quiet, as George Devine had no intention of going any slower—and neither had Beckett . . .
JK I wonder whether, if I quoted from George Devine’s notes written just before the production started, you might be able to recall details? For example, he wrote ‘Rehearse separately to start with to get the idea of cues from the light and not from each other.’ Did you, in fact, do that?
BW Yes. Beckett used to take us separately in the afternoon in the dressing-room . . . And one of the first notes Beckett ever gave me after twenty minutes or half an hour pouring over the text was ‘Billie, will you make those three dots two dots?’ I’ve had a lot of notes like that later on!
JK What about the light sparking you into existence?
BW Yes, I think that Play is a quartet; not a trio at all. The light is a very positive part, a very frightening part. We used to rehearse it with the stage manager playing the light, pointing a finger at us, giving us a cue. And before each performance, we sat down, the three of us and he, pointing his finger.
JK George Devine refers to the light as a kind of dental drill. Was this the kind of impact it had on you?
BW I would go even further; it was an instrument of torture . . . I remember that my doctor came to see what we were doing, when I told him that I wasn’t sleeping very well, and he said that if you did that for night after night, you would go completely out of your mind!
JK The extraordinary physical experience of acting in Play (the discomfort, the nature of the light as an inquisitor, and so on) may well have prepared you, I suppose, for the remarkable experience of doing Not I in 1973.
BW Yes, it did. I think it gave me some inkling, first of all, of the speed at which Not I had to go. It gave me some slight idea of the physical pain and discomfort that going at that speed produces and the build up of tension in the body that has to go somewhere, if the top of your head isn’t to blow off . . . Not I came through the letter-box. I opened it, read it and burst into tears, floods of tears. It had a tremendous emotional impact upon me. I knew then that it had to go at great speed. It was incredibly moving. When he came over, Beckett and I would sit for hours going through it together. Fortunately, my first reaction was on the right lines. One just knew it had to go at pace.
JK Did you work up to this pace gradually? You said at one point that it was like an Olympic athlete tuning up for a major race.
BW Yes, just as athletes when they are training have to go through their various barriers, so as an actress I had to go through certain barriers that were painful. For instance, there is no time to breathe; the rib cage is pounding and pounding, and it becomes unbearably painful; going at that speed and trying to draw tiny little breaths, I would go dizzy; I would fall over at rehearsals; my jaw felt as though it had full Army kit on. I know now how an athlete feels when his muscles become over-tired. The jaw would not open and shut. These were obstacles one had to crack and break through, just as an athlete does.
JK Did you concentrate more with Beckett on rhythm, stress on the screams, the panting and so on, rather than, I suspect, upon interpretation, in the sense of what is the play about?
BW Yes, that is a question I have never asked. I have never asked him what it was about.
JK There were quite a few technical problems in achieving the image as it finally appeared. What kind of make-up and technical arrangements did you make at the Royal Court?
BW The make-up? Well, I just blacked out my face and put a little white around my mouth, blacked out some teeth, then stuck a black hood over my head with a black mouth.
JK The garish circus type of mouth made a few critics think of quite a lot of modern paintings; the ‘Screaming Cardinals’ of Francis Bacon, for instance.
BW Right. But, in fact, because I couldn’t see, I have no idea what Not I looked like. I know that Jack, the lighting man, had great problems in having to put the spotlight very accurately on my mouth, but once the blindfold had gone round my eyes and the hood over the top, I could have been in the middle of Ilkley Moor.
JK That must have been one of the problems, in fact, in acting that part—that you had absolutely nothing to latch on to, as you do in a normal theatre?
BW Yes, for the first couple of rehearsal performances, when the blindfold went on and I was stuck half-way up the stage, I think I had sensory deprivation. The very first time I did it, I went to pieces. I felt I had no body; I could not relate to where I was; and, going at that speed, I was becoming very dizzy and felt like an astronaut tumbling into space . . . I swore to God I was falling, falling . . .
JK Can we move on now to Footfalls, put on in 1976, and written especially for you by Samuel Beckett. This, I suppose, derived from working on Not I with you. And yet it is a very different part indeed; it makes rather different demands upon you than the purely vocal. As you know, I attended several rehearsals and one of Beckett’s ideas I noted concerning the play was the inter-relationship between the mother and the daughter. Did he suggest to you that you should bring out certain peculiarities that you shared as May with the mother?
BW Yes, he wanted to get a similarity, for example, in a tone of voice between the mother and the daughter. And Rose Hill, who played the mother—well, later on I almost repeated verbatim a line that she had said. And each night I used to listen very carefully as to how she said that line and repeat it.
JK One of the most interesting things to me about Footfalls was how, starting perhaps with Happy days in 1961, Beckett has gradually reduced, concentrated, and focussed upon the minimal movements which are necessary to achieve maximal impact. This, I suppose, was something that must have been a dominant part of the work that you were doing with Beckett at rehearsal, concentrating, as he puts it in one of the manuscript notes, upon the ‘less meaning more’?
BW Exactly. And because they were not vast, extravagant movements, the slightest little thing had an effect. Yes, we spent hours on the walking up and down, and hours getting the relationship of the arm and the hand and the bringing down of the hand from the throat and how far this should go to the elbow. It was all very carefully done.
JK Yes, for each sound, you required an absolutely still theatre; every movement had to have its rightness. Beckett is achieving, isn’t he, with the very least of acting detail a tremendous amount of effect, which, in more traditional theatre, uses grander gestures, much larger movements altogether?
BW But what is interesting is that what Beckett is doing requires far more concentration from the actor, to add to his own enormous concentration.
JK I found Footfalls extremely moving. It seemed to me to crystallize, encapsulate loss, distress, absence, the girl ‘who was not really there.’ Was this something that you felt strongly as you acted it?
BW Yes, it was. And there I drew on something very personal. My sister’s young daughter had committed suicide just before we started Footfalls, a young twenty-two year old girl—this is relevant to what I drew on in Footfalls. My young niece committed suicide on her twenty-second birthday; she was found ‘tattered and torn.’ Yes, for me it was an expression of grief. And I think, if anything, one used Footfalls as a homage to her. I remember that, on the first night, I wrote ‘Tonight I dedicate to Lindy Lou.’ Everything that Beckett wrote made absolute sense to what I was feeling, and perhaps, for my sister, I could express some of the awful grief that she was (and still is) feeling . . . How Beckett can put his finger as accurately on grief and compassion and loss as certainly as in Footfalls he did . . .
JK I remember noting at the time at rehearsal Beckett’s remark to Rose Hill about the production ‘We are not trying to do this play realistically or psychologically but musically.’ This was an element, presumably, that you must have concentrated rather a lot upon at rehearsal?
BW Yes, this is something that happens. When I was doing Not I, I felt, as I said, like an athlete crashing through barriers, but also like a musical instrument playing notes . . . In Footfalls, I felt like a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting—one felt like all three—and in fact when Beckett was directing Footfalls, he was not only using me to play the notes, but I almost felt that he did have the paintbrush out and was painting, and, of course, what he always has in the other pocket is the rubber, because as fast as he draws a line in, he gets out that enormous india-rubber and rubs it out until it is only faintly there.
JK You have worked now with many theatre, film, and television directors. What are some of the characteristics of Beckett as a director?
BW Compassion; a general love of his fellow human-beings; the feeling that he very much wants you to get it right; he will not let you go out and give a sterile performance—this is marvellously comforting. And, although he is very particular and meticulous and insists that it be right, he is the only director with whom, when he is in the theatre, I feel unafraid and safe. I wish he would be there sometimes on a first night, but I know that he never sees one of his plays in front of an audience.
JK Enormously close attention to detail? I have noticed in his production notebooks how everything is formulated in its most intricate detail: in Happy days, each movement of the woman’s head is planned down to every half-turn, each movement of the hand in Footfalls, each gradation of the voice in Not I—absolutely meticulous detail.
BW And yet that would seem as if it should totally restrict the actor; but it doesn’t. It gives you a marvellous freedom, because within this meticulous framework and I suppose surrounded by this feeling of compassion and safety, there is freedom to experiment. I think a lot of actors and a lot of people think that Beckett ties the actor up, that you are not allowed to move, that you just have to obey him. Obviously you listen to him, but within this framework, you can expand. Certainly I feel a marvellous freedom working with him.
JK Have you been able to draw anything from working with Beckett on his plays and take it over into your other work?
BW Yes, I know the amount of concentration, work, and effort that one puts in when one is working with Beckett. Therefore I am very much aware, when I am working on something else, that sometimes I’m cutting corners. With Beckett, you can’t cut corners. It is an immense privilege and good fortune to have worked with the man. But the most productive thing of all is to work within a context of love and compassion. That is the most fertile thing in the world.