Theatre: Her master's voice

Play it again, Sam? Beckett's muse Billie Whitelaw makes a final return to his works. By Dominic Cavendish
Oh, is that Nick Cave?" Her eyes squint behind sunglasses at the magazine cover. "He looks very stern, doesn't he?" A glass of red wine hovers at her lips. "He looks young, too. But then, everyone looks young to me these days." We are sitting in the garden of her idyllic Suffolk cottage and it's already clear Samuel Beckett's favourite actress, dressed for pottering in leggings and blouse, has not decided to take an evening out from semi-retirement through any particular enthusiasm for the surly- faced Australian singer-songwriter in charge of this year's Meltdown Festival. Cave, a fan, just got lucky.

When Billie Whitelaw appears on stage this Sunday to read Beckett monologues and share memories of working with him, it'll be the first time she has put herself in front of an audience in London since 1987, when she starred with Patrick Stewart in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Young Vic. She agreed to do it because, as she puts it: "The moment seemed right."

Beckett died 10 years ago, and although his passing "felt like an amputation", it is not the anniversary uppermost in Whitelaw's mind. It's a year since the death of her husband, Robert Muller, an author and playwright, and she is only now beginning to come to terms with the loss. "He took a year to die," she says, "and for 12 months after I haven't done anything, but I have to keep myself busy somehow. There's a need to carry on." An Evening with Samuel Beckett, which has evolved from lecturing at American campuses, will be a way of commemorating "Robert and Sam - who have been, apart from my son, the two most important men in my life."

Some might say this is the most painful act of commemoration one could choose. Beckett's writing has its phrases of bleak consolation, but they are in short supply in the three principal components of the QEH event, a screening of the BBC film of Not I, readings of Rockaby and the television play Eh Joe, which she recorded shortly before Beckett's death. In the breathy babble spewed from the frenzied, disembodied Mouth in Not I lie images of paralysis that could easily describe the state of Whitelaw's late husband after his double stroke, "the machine ... so disconnected ... never got the message ... or powerless to respond ... like numbed". In Rockaby, written, like Not I, for Whitelaw, a solitary woman fades away in a rocking chair. Eh Joe has a ghostly female voice gnawing like a maggot inside an old man's head: "Dry rotten at last. Eh Joe?"

Whitelaw, who has just turned 67, is happy with her selection. These "odes to death", as she calls them, feel appropriate without being as messy or as awful as the real thing ("Nothing can prepare you for it," she says, her eroded north country accent conveying a soft resignation). Moreover, it's the lack of mess, the meticulousness of these monologues, that makes it difficult for the attentive performer to be overwhelmed by emotion. The traumas of her own life (including her father's death when she was 10 and her son's near-death from meningitis) gave her a way into the roles, but once inside there was plenty to keep her occupied. Far too much, in the case of Not I, for her to contemplate even reading it on Sunday. "It's stream-of-consciousness on rollerskates," she says. "I'd collapse."

But with Eh Joe and Rockaby, her approach will be the same as it was from her first meeting with the "gentle, kind man with twinkly eyes" in 1964 when she was in Play for the National Theatre, treating the words as music. "I don't puzzle over them. If it sounds right, it'll be right."

During rehearsals for Play they developed an unshakeable rapport, the punctilious author famously asking Whitelaw to "make those three dots, two dots". She wrote in her autobiography: "I can't read or write music, but if I were a musician I'd have put a crotchet here instead of a quaver." She likens his directing to conducting. "He didn't have to say much. `Don't act', which meant `Too much colour', `louder', `softer', `quicker', `slower'. I remember once he kept saying, `Slower, slower'. I said, `If I go any slower, I'm going to bore them to death'." She adopts a quivering Irish brogue, relishing the old anecdote: "`Bore them to death', he said `Bore them to death.' When we were doing Rockaby, he warned, `If you go too fast, you can't hurt 'em enough'."

She goes painfully slowly, clicking time with her fingers, when she reads the latter. "`Till in end/ the day came/ in the end came/ close of a long day'. The trick is to give each phrase space without leaving it stranded."

She skips excitedly to Eh Joe, whispering, "`Thought of everything? Forgotten nothing?' If the word has several syllables, use them," she says. "`Ev- er-y-thing. No-thing.' Oh lord," she adds, her serenity vanishing. "I'm going to have to get on with this if I'm going to get it right on Sunday. I must do it as near as possible to the way he wanted."

Whitelaw's willingness to do everything in her power to meet with Beckett's approval is the stuff of enduring fascination. For him, she loaded (sometimes perilously overloaded) her memory banks with minute details. For him, she uncomplainingly endured scarring privations: the urn she stood in for Play was a roomy paradise compared to the rostrum she perched on for Not I, masked and hooded, her head held in a vice to stop it shaking. A cramped spell up to her neck in a mound for Happy Days and the agonising twists and turns of Footfalls followed. You get the impression of a faithful servant tiptoeing round the genius of her master, anxious to avoid his groans of displeasure. "She doesn't ask any damnfool questions," Beckett once said, explaining his preference for this former child actress from Bradford who came with none of the baggage of the professionally trained.

For her, it felt like a collaborative relationship. Although she has had an illustrious career doing "proper plays" - playing Desdemona to Olivier's Othello - and big movies (she is still recognised in the street as the monster nanny from The Omen being "a conduit" for Beckett was infinitely more satisfying. "For the first time, I felt part of the creative process," she says.

A friend of theirs from Paris, the painter Avigdor Arikha, once took her to task for being too grateful: "Don't forget, he needs you." Without Whitelaw back then, Beckett's work might have turned out differently. Without Whitelaw around now, we would find it much harder to fathom how he wanted his work staged.

But you can't count on her standing by for much longer - she feels no desire to undergo the rigours of performance again, except for the odd spot of film and TV. She does fancy travelling the world. "I want an easier life," she says. "I want to be free." Who can blame her? In life, as in art, doing less can often mean so much more.

`An Evening with Samuel Beckett', 7.45pm, Sun, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1, 0171-960 4242

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