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by Tasha Nuthall

Billie Whitelaw in 'Happy Days', Donald Cooper / Photostage

I’d never been more transfixed by a mouth than when I saw Billie Whitelaw perform Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’. Rapid, anxious lips moving back and forth, speckles of spit appearing with every vowel. A disembodied mouth, its owner anonymous, rattling away incomprehensibly, in the gloomy darkness of the stage. Well, I watched it from the glare of my laptop screen, as Whitelaw’s performance was made nearly fifty years ago, but you feel drawn in by the rambling woman, hissing venomously the words she had submerged for so long: ‘“When suddenly she realised… words were… what?… who?... no!... she!”’ 


‘Not I’ was first performed by Whitelaw in 1973, becoming renowned for the intensity of the monologue, and the exhaustive performance expected of the actress. ‘Not I’ is an outburst expressed by an unknown woman suffering from trauma, who seeks to distance herself from the self, a desire for intangibility. Her apathy for life, the gleaming mouth suspended in the air, and the babbling stream that warns ‘“mouth’s on fire”’, cemented Whitelaw as a theatrical great. 


Whitelaw straddled between the cinema and the theatre, winning numerous awards on screen and working for film giants such as Alfred Hitchcock. She terrified millions in The Omen, and struggled with crosswords in Hot Fuzz (two very different films, I’ve gathered), but her presence remains onstage, through her illuminating performances of Beckett’s works. 


Beckett saw her as ‘the perfect actress’, and perhaps she was; Whitelaw quickly became (in her own words) ‘a tool for his work’. Beckett began to write plays for her, with both the claustrophobic and chattering Winnie in ‘Happy Days’ and the teetering old woman in ‘Rockaby’ earning critical acclaim. Whitelaw worked to the point of exhaustion in her efforts to resemble the intricacies of Beckett’s theatrical vision. 


Following Beckett’s death in 1989, Whitelaw ceased from performing onstage, focusing on her film career. She described his death as akin to an ‘amputation’ and, following her death in 2014, it seems as though we are deprived of the magicality that derived from their partnership. So rarely do we find two individuals who strive to create the most achingly beautiful theatre, and Whitelaw and Beckett seemed entirely dependent on each other in doing so. 

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