Posts Tagged ‘Billie Whitelaw’

Remembering Sir Peter Hall and a journey to Denver for Tantalus

Monday, September 18th, 2017


Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakepeare Company, died last week, after long illness. I met the eminent theater director briefly on the South Bank’s National Theater, after a performance of … what? It must have been his three-night ten-play cycle of The Greeks in 1980. I attended so much theater during my years in London, it may have been another production, but certainly the RSC’s The Greeks is the one that left a mark on me. The Greek playwrights, and Greek theater in general, have never been the same. It also made me a huge fan of the late great Billie Whitelaw, who played Andromache, among other roles in the production (including in the chorus).

Alas, a search online suggests the much-praised production has dissolved into oblivion. I can’t even find a smidgen of a youtube video.

That must have been the occasion when I chatted with Hall in the National Theater lobby, and exchanged contact information to have a conversation that never happened and I can’t recall why. In fact, I had forgotten the exchange until yesterday. Perhaps someday I’ll find the scrap of paper, with his address and phone number (the pre-internet age before email), scribbled in his handwriting.

Cut away to a new century. By then I was on the West Coast, and struggled mightily to head out for the Denver opening-night production of Hall’s new effort, Tantalus. Hall had moved with his family to Denver to rehearse and hone the script for a sacrificial six months.

“The subsequent play – which had been written by John Barton over 17 years, is still to this day billed as the largest undertaking in the 2,500-year history of theatre,” according to the Denver Center’s website tribute. ‘Nothing has come along like it, and it probably won’t ever happen again,” [Denver Center founder] Seawell said before his death in 2015. … It brought critics from all over the world. It brought people to Colorado from 38 states and more than 40 countries.’” It also cost about $8 million of the founder’s money.

“Tantalus, directed by Peter Hall and his son, Edward, and created by an international ensemble of artists, was an epic spectacle on-stage and off. The six-month rehearsal process and subsequent British tour is a tale of artistic squabbles, clashing egos, mounting tension, hurdles of time and money – and spectacular artistic achievement culminating in a standing-room only run at London’s Barbican Theatre.

While going through some old boxes of papers this weekend, I found the “special edition” of Applause commemorating the epic event. Said Hall, “My intention is not perversely to rewrite the old masterpieces but to use the material as a metaphor for today”:

I see the whole thing as a metaphor about myth and history, but also about how a great myth helps us to understand history. The boundary lines between myth, history and truth are hazy. This blurring is something we understand well today. And if we don’t, we should.

It is important to stress that throughout the cycle the Roman words “Greece” and “Greek” are never mentioned. My image is of something both pre-Homeric and long past it. The situation is that Agamemnon leads a group of war-kings from “The West” whom he would like to unite into a nation. His army is simply called “The War Kings” or “The Men from the West.”

The title Tantalus relates us to this approach. Death is certain but doom is postponed. The fruits of the earth are ours for the taking, but most people never quite get a real taste of them. Tantalus, the friend of Zeus and the ancestor of Agamemnon and Menelaus, learned the gods’ secrets. When he betrayed them to men, he was given the eternal punishment of living forever under a great rock which was always about to fall, but never fell, close to a tree of delicious fruit which the wind swept away whenever he clutched at it. The Rock, roped up to Heaven, overhangs the whole cycle. …

I think more and more of the cycle as a metaphor for aRea single age in human history, squeezed in between Floods, Ice Ages, man’s general self-destructiveness or some other human catastrophe. Or perhaps yet another cosmic disaster of an unknown nature.

Read Michael Billington’s post about the 2000 production in the Guardian hereOr the Denver Center’s tribute here.

A minute’s silence? Try an hour: Billie Whitelaw and Beckett

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

Ta very much, Billie.

One among the many attractions of living in London is getting a chance to see some of the world’s leading actors onstage – and so I was introduced to the legendary Billie Whitelaw as Andromache in a brilliant 3-night Sir Peter Hall/John Barton Royal Shakespeare Company production, The Greeks. Her powerful performance seemed rooted to the center of the earth. Whitelaw, best known for her work with Samuel Beckett, who wrote several roles for her, remained my favorite actress. She  was too little-known and appreciated in the U.S., so my chances to see her again were few (she appeared in The Omen and Hitchcock‘s Frenzy, but I don’t do horror films – the daily news is bad enough).

In the lead-up to Christmas, I hadn’t noticed that she quietly passed away in London on December 21. From The Guardian obituary:

Speaking in 1997, she said that death held no fear for her. “Death’s not one of those things that frighten the life out of me. Getting up on stage with the curtain going up frightens me more. I very often wake up at two in the morning with my stomach going over. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out why – it’s all the things you’ve put to one side during the day,” she told the Independent.


Ashamed of the good life.

During the war, her family moved from her native Coventry to Bradford to escape German bombing of the latter. Her father died of lung cancer when she was aged 10 and the family struggled for money at times.

Speaking about the stark difference between her relatively comfortable later life and her childhood, she said: “It’s something I haven’t come to terms with – I’m rather ashamed of having the good life I have.”

“Sad to see Billie Whitelaw has died,” tweeted comedian Robin Ince. “I’d suggest a minute’s silence, but I imagine Beckett would suggest it should be much longer than that.”

Below, her landmark performance in Beckett’s Happy Days (read about the Stanford performance here). This grainy video is taken from a production directed by Beckett himself, with Leonard Fenton as Willie.  Act II is here.  And thanks to George Szirtes for alerting me to this video.