OBITUARY: David Warrilow

David Warrilow belonged to that select group of actors able to achieve the highest level of competence in their profession, but only in a limited framework that was recognised and admired by the cognoscenti interested in intellectual theatre.

Warrilow's reputation was established abroad and only came late to his native country. His biggest impact was made in the plays and adaptations for the stage of the prose works of Samuel Beckett and Robert Pinget, and although he often performed with big companies, he was best known for intimate theatre and his one-man shows.

Born in Staffordshire, one of a large family, Warrilow was the son of a shoe retailer, but his Irish mother encouraged his interest in literature and the arts. He went to Reading University and graduated as a BA with honours in French. Warrilow then moved to Paris to work as an editor for the magazine Realite for 11 years, interested primarily in theatre and acting.

With the encouragement of the composer Philip Glass and many introductions from the American community in Paris, Warrilow moved on to the United States. There he founded, with others, the theatre company Mabou Mines that introduced new concepts of literary and experimental drama in what became known as Off-Off Broadway; it soon developed a cult following. It first performed at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970 and rapidly developed a repertory in which adaptations of Beckett's work were most prominent, making theatrical history with The Lost Ones, a metaphorical fable about the futility of most human activity, where Warrilow recited the text while moving tiny figures around on the ground, and up and down ladders inside a vertical cylinder, opened on one side to the audience's view. Other Beckett productions were Cascando (written as a radio play) and Play. Two American plays, Dressed Like an Egg and Southern Exposure, won Warrilow Obie (Off-Broadway) awards, as did a revival of The Lost Ones. He later won the Twin Cities Critics' Award for Kudos, performed in Minneapolis in 1982.

While still working in New York, Warrilow performed regularly at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis between 1970 and 1979, playing Jacques in As You Like It, Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro and leading roles in Heartbreak House, Hedda Gabler and other plays from the international repertory. He also took part in the New York Shakespeare Festival, run by Joe Papp.

During the Beckett seasons mounted in the Eighties at the Harold Clurman Theatre, on ''Theatre Row'' in New York, Warrilow created the role of the Protagonist in Catastrophe (1982), Beckett's only venture into direct political theatre (in hommage to Vaclav Havel, then in prison) and Bom in What Where. He also obtained a new text, Piece of Monologue, from Beckett, which he performed together with the other two at the Edinburgh Festival (his British debut) in 1984. All three were originally directed by Alan Schneider, who had died earlier that year in London in a tragic road accident outside the Hampstead Theatre Club while posting a letter to Beckett.

Schneider had for years been the American director to whom Beckett had entrusted his New York productions, and he had earlier directed Warrilow in the world premiere of Ohio Impromptu (1981), given in Columbus as the highlight of a Beckett conference at the university. The play had been written for Stanley Gontarsky, organiser of the conference, as a compensation for Gontarsky's having been so overawed at his first meeting with Beckett in Paris that he totally lost the power of speech until Beckett had left the cafe.

After Edinburgh, the three Beckett plays came to the Donmar, in London, where they received outstanding reviews. Warrilow returned to London in 1990 to perform Krapp's Last Tape at Riverside Studios. In between he acted in both New York and Paris. His French was perfect after much hard work and he performed with large companies, making a particular impression as Marat in The Marat Sade, and went on to stage a number of one-acters including Pinget's The Hypothesis and adaptations of two of the same author's novels, Someone and The Inquisitory. These monologues required a prodigious feat of memory and total concentration.

Warrilow was of medium height, but like many thin actors with a hypnotic presence, he usually gave the impression of being much taller. His voice could adapt itself to different roles - he was excellent in character parts - but often sounded like that of a West End matinee idol (which he never was), a little mannered, especially when doing a ''voice over'' on a film or television documentary. He had a Beckettian sense of timing, knowing exactly how long to hold a pause or a pose.

He put on a private performance of The Lost Ones for Beckett in Paris before the 80th birthday celebrations in 1986 (in which Beckett typically played no part) which so impressed Beckett that he removed his previous objections and allowed Warrilow to perform it in French in Jean-Louis Barrault's theatre in the spring of 1986 the same year.

Warrilow made one film, La Ferdinanda (1981), and was the narrator's voice in Sean O'Mordha's Beckett documentary, Silence to Silence. He was an actor of great ambition who started late and taught himself. He knew his own worth and could be very angry when a role he felt he could do better went to another actor; he drilled himself to do what he wanted to do and to meet the challenges he set for himself, which were high, overcoming a temporary alcohol addiction, brought on by depression, and a constitution that was never strong.

Warrilow never allowed illness to stop him performing, until the very end. He could make himself an unforgettable stage presence, perhaps most impressively as the human statue that he is seen to become in Catastrophe, where at the end he managed to suggest the inextinguishable flame of human defiance in the face of tyranny by the gleam in his one visible eye as the spotlight focused on it.

In spite of debilitating illness, Warrilow insisted on working up to the end. He collapsed on stage while playing Krapp's Last Tape last year, but continued to perform in subsequent performances lying on a couch and being carried on stage. In February-March this year he appeared again at the Petit Odeon, the 60-seat experimental auditorium of one of France's most prestigious theatres, sitting in a chair and reading a few paragraphs from Beckett's Company, while his taped voice did the rest. He was in agony, unable to sleep at night, haunted by the text, and often cursing the author, but true to his injunction to go "On".

David Warrilow, actor: born Staffordshire 28 December 1934; died Paris 17 August 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future