OBITUARY: David Warrilow

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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.