By Emma Firestone

Samuel Beckett’s austere existential vision of the loneliness of the individual facing the inevitable—death—has become familiar. Not cosy, exactly, but familiar. For revivals of the best-known plays (Endgame, Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape ), I reckon, the consequences of this familiarity have mostly been positive: conceived for an audience not just prepared but eager to engage a bleakness once thought distasteful or performance-averse, these productions are free to explore the great range of tones and tenors present in Beckett’s marvelously variable prose. It is now standard, for example, for directors to articulate the humour and farce inherent in his character’s inexplicable conditions, as well as the anticipated tragedy.

On the other hand, familiarity has certainly deprived these plays of some of their edge, and placed far more emphasis on the lead performances. There was once a period when a fresh, personalised performance of a Beckett role was a sort of oxymoron, like playing an inventive C minor scale. Now, it’s as common and unobjectionable to speak of ‘Tony Roberts’ Hamm’ or ‘Fiona Shaw’s Winnie’ (the performance that inspired this article, on which, more below) as of, say, Ian McKellen’s Richard III or Sarah Siddons’ Lady Macbeth. Which is to say, Beckett’s ‘great’ roles exist, like Shakespeare’s, as autonomous organisms with which our most respected actors are encouraged to engage not just their talents, but their professional personae, in relationships of creative dependency—ideally, symbiotic ones. This point might seem unremarkable, but it speaks to how decisively the popular sense of what a ‘Beckett character’ can and should be has changed with the years.

Some of the most intriguing pages of Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, a collection of interviews and tributes recently compiled by a Beckett biographer, come from actors who recall the author trailing their early productions of his work all over Europe, exhorting them never to inquire about the characters’ lives beyond the text, not to play their parts realistically, and to deliver as many lines as possible in their best dull-grey monotone. “Too much colour” was his frequent, head-shaking objection in rehearsals; he would recoil conspicuously when an actor’s delivery tinged a line with even a faint hint of sentimentality. Yet the actors often felt that he was quite wrong—that the presence of lively and psychologically plausible human beings on stage created for the audience an irrefutable sense of reality as well as the potential for identification, which the drama’s restrictive choreography, stylised speech-patterns and absurd plots then worked to undermine. The contrast between the ‘believable’ actor and the disorienting stage world, they felt, beautifully dramatised the tension between denial and affirmation that underlies much of Beckett’s work. Beckett himself came eventually to accept (to a point) this take on the business of characterisation in his plays. Of course, his and his estate’s regular and messy feuds with any production that dares attempt renovation on his stage directions has pretty much secured his name as a byword for textual tyranny.

My own hunch on the more-colour/less-colour issue is that the greater number of Beckett’s characters are neither round nor flat—not so abstracted as to preclude a passionate response altogether (still a common lament of Beckett audiences), nor so specified as to override their status as archetypes. The best Beckett actors tend to pitch their characters somewhere shy of psychological realism, while still investing them with physical and emotional gestures of extraordinary precision: Alvin Epstein’s Nagg in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s 2005 Endgame is a beautiful recent example. More than any insight into a character’s psychological profile, it is by gestural clarity, scrupulously applied from moment to moment, that the actor suggests that a character’s being, if ultimately confused or inarticulable, is yet rooted in something deep and shared.

I started this piece by remarking that Beckett’s plays are now cultural mainstays, and that one sure sign of a cultural mainstay is its recruitment by the star system. (To be sure, we’re not quite at the point of seeing, I don’t know, Ben Stiller receiving marquee billing as Clov in an off-Broadway Endgame. But thirty years on from the founding of New York’s star-spangled Shakespeare on the Park summer festival, the idea no longer sounds like complete lunacy.) More than any other Beckett play, Happy Days has become a star vehicle. That it has done so seems far from inevitable, seeing as the play consists almost solely of the fragmented, repetitive, half-daft monologue of a 50s-ish woman who is buried throughout in a rising pile of dirt. Still, the role of Winnie, which calls for an actor to raise a watershed of musings through which trifles, trivia, lyrics, affection, injury, and terror rapidly coarse and mingle, has challenged some of the great female actors of the last half century, from Peggy Ashcroft to Madeleine Renaud to Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers).

Prone to silly self-flattery, compulsively optimistic cries (‘This will have been another happy day!’) that brim with heartbreak as well as hilarity, and shocking intimations of death by scorching, Winnie is a capacious creature who offers much for actors to make their own. But Fiona Shaw, who headlined a recent revival at the National Theatre in London (it closed on March 1), must certainly be the first to have achieved so palpable a conflation of performer and role. For the Winnie of her interpretation is a born performer, hostess to her own slow succumbing: a human parable re-conceived as the Actor’s Nightmare, and significantly reduced in the process.

If Winnie’s mound is the Seat of theatre royalty, then Shaw boasts strong claims for succession. Best known as the heinous Aunt Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, widely celebrated for inducing rashes and cold sweats in audiences as the child-murdering Medea a few years back, Shaw has the stage persona of the natural extrovert: extra-large features, sweeping wingspan, a voice to drown a brass band. In realizing Winnie she draws heavily on these natural gifts, and the brio and stamina she has harnessed for her performance are undeniable and sometimes genuinely impressive. Her rummages through her black carpetbag are accomplished with a wealth of pleasing detail, and at one point, she vividly mimics the explosion that has sent her parasol into flames. On the other hand, Shaw brings off these feats with more than a hint of self-congratulation, a self-conscious style that sours in the Second act, when Winnie is rediscovered buried up to her neck. Shaw’s unconventional alterations to her performance—she blacks her teeth, tosses skeletal grimaces, and slurs her speech progressively as if suffering from heat stroke—come off more as appended gimmicks than the resourceful fruits of extreme deprivation.

Too often, this Winnie’s daily rituals and reiterative chatter appears to be a routine in the theatrical sense of the word. Many actors have located the gasping panic and paranoia at the root of Winnie’s sparky graciousness, but Shaw, in her defenses of her troglodyte husband Willie and swift changes of subject, merely seems determined to distract herself and her audience from despair…or their wristwatches. The flourishes, preens, girlish giggles, and histrionics she exercises throughout are drawn from the performer’s stock of diversions, and are founded in nothing more than a compulsive desire to sugarcoat the real. Winnie’s words upon words are evidence of her resolution—her desperate, irrefutable, achingly simply will to survive. As delivered by Shaw, they seem more like evidence of her delusion: we watch her being witty, busy, evasive, but never sense the dread or loneliness beneath these gestures. As a result, Shaw’s performance has the feel of a mean-spirited send-up of the character.

Beckett’s challenge to actors is to locate in themselves the raw essences which their characters embody. Those bodily constraints and punctilious stage directions are tools he fashioned to assist them in this task; in this respect they are not unlike the leather masks of the Commedia dell’Arte, which secure the role’s expressive coherence, yet force the performer to keep the mask ceaselessly activated, ‘alive’ with local, peculiar attention and humanity. Perhaps Shaw’s crack at Happy Days might have evolved with time, but in the performance I saw at the National there was hardly the suggestion that Shaw had seen the Winnie in herself. Instead—bolstered by an almost unconscionably lazy reading—she had seen herself in Winnie.

The ‘star vehicle’ phenomenon is pervasive. But one might have hoped that Beckett’s plays, the best of which tap the undercurrent of universal fear and joy and do so with the unforced, intuitive power of the permanent, would have stayed immune for longer.

The photo is a cropped image of Billie Whitelaw in a production of Happy Days, directed by Samuel Beckett, which opened on June 7, 1979.