Actress Billie Whitelaw, perhaps best known for her intimate collaboration with Samuel Beckett, has died aged 82. She had the simultaneously enviable and piteous distinction of being the muse and go-to performer of Beckett’s work for many years, submitting herself repeatedly to his tiresome, grueling and always extreme methods of creation.
Born in Coventry in 1932, Whitelaw grew up in a working class family, but quickly found her feet in the acting world. After some brief children’s roles in radio, she was asked at the age of 16 to join Joan Littlewood’s theatre company, but her parents would not allow it. A few years later, however, she became a part of repertory theatre company with Harry Hanson, and worked with the likes of Peter Hall and Maggie Smith. She proceeded to engage with a comfortable career in television dramas over the next decade or so, until she caught the attention of Laurence Olivier just in time to join his coveted first company at the National Theatre in 1963. In this period, one of her greatest and most memorable roles was as Desdemona opposite Olivier’s Othello.
She continued to work with the National and the Royal Shakespeare Company and in other major theatres for several years, appearing occasionally in film as well (perhaps most famously as the ghastly and sinister nanny, Mrs. Baylock, in the horror classic, The Omen, in 1976). It was her long association with Samuel Beckett, however, whom she met in 1963, for which she shall inevitably be best remembered. The writer who so famously guarded his privacy and so rarely spoke about his work created through Whitelaw a vessel through which the rest of us could receive his vision. She came as close as any to cracking the Beckett code – if not the closest of all, for she worked perhaps more closely with the man himself than any other in his long career.
Whitelaw compared her relationship with Beckett to being “moulded” like a “piece of plaster” until “he got the right shape”. She appeared in several of his plays over some twenty years, some of which – such as Footfalls – he wrote especially for her, and even lectured on Beckett’s plays in her free time. Whitelaw took on what would become one of Beckett’s best-known and strangest pieces, Not I, at the Royal Court in 1973.
The play required Whitelaw to show nothing but her mouth, exposed by a spotlight against a black curtain, spewing out a heated and turbulent diatribe of pain and frustration at an inhuman speed for several minutes. The rehearsal with Beckett was, according to Whitelaw, unbelievably demanding. Beckett wasn’t interested in her ‘acting’ the part; he wanted to feel real and tangible emotion and heartache. He wanted the dialogue to resonate deep within his actress, and the result was nowhere short of astonishing.
Even now, watching Whitelaw’s performance sends chills down your spine. She was seemingly not deterred by Beckett’s fierce and exhausting methods, though, collaborating with him again with Happy Days in 1979 and Rockaby in 1981. In later years, she recounted “I would have walked on glass for that man”. Aside from their lengthy professional partnership, Whitelaw and Beckett enjoyed a close relationship off stage as well. It was remarkably unusual for his erratic style how long they remained working together. She was undoubtedly one of his finest interpreters: he once called her “the perfect actress”.
One must not overlook Whitelaw’s long and illustrious career outside of her work with Beckett, however. She starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy in 1972; played opposite Patrick Stewart in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Young Vic in 1986; appeared as the protective mother of the Kray twins in the gritty drama, The Krays, in 1990; and took her final feature film rôle in 2007 with the Edgar Wright comedy, Hot Fuzz. She was appointed CBE in 1991 for her services to drama. Billie Whitelaw spent her final years in Denville Hall, a retirement home for actors in north London. Her rigorous range and her abundance of experience are a huge loss for the theatrical world.