BILLIE WHITELAW...WHO HE? by Billie Whitelaw


Email this review


A pungent memoir by British actress Whitelaw, the preeminent interpreter of Samuel Beckett's female roles. You can practically smell the fat frying in Whitelaw's descriptions of the cholesterol-heavy ""tea"" (bread soaked in roasting pan juices) served during her 1930s childhood in northern England and feel the grit in her mouth as she recalls eating dirt with a teaspoon (""I like the taste""). Her accounts of her parents' troubled relationship and her own failed first marriage are notable for their lack of whining; her portrait of her second husband is loving but unsentimental. What will most interest readers, however, are her detailed descriptions of her work with Beckett. The playwright was so impressed with Whitelaw's performance in the 1963 British production of Play that he insisted she be given the lead in the Royal Court Theatre's 1972 production of Not I; he went on to write Footfalls (1976) and Rockaby (1981) for her and to direct her in a 1979 revival of Happy Days. The actress freely admits she is no intellectual: ""I am practically illiterate. . . . I never read plays unless I have to perform in them."" Yet she made a visceral connection with Beckett's writings, which many theatergoers consider dauntingly obscure. ""I found so much of myself in Not I,"" she recalls. ""Somewhere in there were my entrails under a microscope."" Her instinctual approach, which involved intense discussions with Beckett about pace and feeling, almost none about meaning, makes for riveting reading. Chapters on her non-Beckett career are less interesting, though she makes some sharp comments about Laurence Olivier's overly revered acting style (""technically brilliant, but I could find no real emotional involvement"") and controversial drama critic Kenneth Tynan (""for all his revolutionary left-wing views, he looked a bit of a toff""). Too specialized for the general reader, perhaps, but Beckett lovers will cherish Whitelaw's intimate revelations about his personality and working methods.

Pub Date: April 22nd, 1996
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: St. Martin's