Lear in the storm; Winnie in the sandheap: two of the greatest stage metaphors for the human condition and two of the most challenging roles for an actor. And while Simon Russell Beale takes on Lear at London’s National Theatre, here, half a mile away, Juliet Stevenson tackles Winnie. It might seem cruel and unusual punishment from Beckett to bury his performer, rendering her immobile. But he knew that a great actor could find the desperate poignancy in that image and use her craft to make every detail count. And so it is with Stevenson, who brings a resolute breeziness and nimbleness to the part that contrasts heartbreakingly with her predicament.
She and director Natalie Abrahami find every ounce of comedy in the play. Woken from slumber by a hideous, blaring bell, Stevenson’s Winnie has a moment’s doubt before she leaps into action, putting on her brave face. “Another heavenly day,” she chirrups, beaming at the audience. Such detailed comic timing runs through the performance, as she prattles away, digging out her belongings from her capacious shopping bag and laying them on the shingle that entombs her up to her waist in Vicki Mortimer’s seaside set.
She battles amiably to engage Willie (David Beames), her taciturn spouse, who lurks in a hole nearby, in conversation. But while Stevenson brings sprightliness to her busy routine, she also conveys the effort of will it takes. She looks like a bright little bird trapped in quicksand and every now and then terror breaks through: an awareness of her predicament that she determinedly pushes away. Her refrain – “that is what I find so wonderful” – becomes increasingly uncertain.
In the second act, with Winnie now buried up to her neck, the breezy smile has become more of a determined grimace, the effort at remembering those “unforgettable lines” increasingly hard. Her hair, over which she fretted so in the first act, is now unkempt. Stevenson, looking frighteningly skeletal already and using her features with great precision, projects the grim battle between the will to live and the desire to sleep. And yet, there’s a heartening spiritual resilience about her.
It’s Winnie’s ordinariness here that makes the piece so terrifying: the terrain seems less post-apocalyptic than symbolic of the universal decline into old age. But the contrast between her recognisable behaviour and her situation also brings out the play’s deliberate theatricality. We are reminded that we, as audience to Winnie’s musings, are important. This quietly raises the question: what if we, unlike Winnie, have no audience to our thoughts? Happy days indeed.