Old Fitz Theatre, June 13


Lex Marinos and Belinda Giblin. All Photos: Robert Catto.

One perfect moment. Perhaps that’s as much as we can ever expect, but it’s enough. It comes when Winnie speaks of a time when she was not buried up to her waist: “when I had… the use of my legs”. Suddenly her smile and her despair fight for the same real estate on her face, and Belinda Giblin is the best of the six Winnies I’ve seen in this two-handed play about marriage, hopelessness, stoicism and outlandish optimism.

Giblin is pretty good for the rest of the 72 minutes, too. Yes, just 72 minutes (plus interval) – a racehorse-like pace for a play that can last 90. It’s certainly no poorer for this alacrity, and only occasionally does Giblin’s delivery feel rushed. No doubt playwright Samuel Beckett would have found it more so, given he once made a beleaguered actor rehearse against a metronome, so insistent was he about tempo. Beckett’s brow might have also furrowed at Winnie’s hat, now a fascinator (which works), and at the fact that the “scorched grass” mound in which she is trapped is now so much bomb-site rubble. Charles Davis’s set also has a kitsch tourist-poster backdrop, while a post-apocalypse soundscape (Shareeka Helaluddin) surrounds us before Winnie is first blasted with light (Veronique Benett) and the wake-up bell to begin another “happy day”.

Photo: Robert Catto.

Giblin is ideally cast. Her saucer-sized eyes convey wonder and desolation in equal measure, and her smile is dazzlingly effervescent. This helps keep us on side, because, as her hopeless husband Willie (Lex Marinos) knows, Winnie can be a frustration. Her trashcan memory means she mangles every quote for which she reaches by Shakespeare, Milton, Gray, Yeats and the rest, and she flits between subjects to dizzying effect. Indeed Beckett himself memorably likened her to “a bird with oil on its feathers”. Certainly Beckett’s humour was at its dark zenith when he wrote this in 1961. While Winnie is trapped in her mound, Willie is reduced to grovelling on all fours, for instance, and, to Winnie’s dismay, proves to be “not the crawler you were”.

Photo: Robert Catto.

Beckett imagined that the worst thing that could happen to a human would be to be forcibly awakened (the dreaded bell) whenever one was dropping off to sleep: the Act Two scenario when Winnie is buried up to neck. Among other impacts, director Craig Baldwin’s cracking pace makes us arrive there sooner, and despite Act One’s humour and despair, it almost functions as a prelude to the shorter Act Two. This is when the play’s ultimate intensity is unleashed: just a face, words and the horror of a predicament in which Winnie can do nothing. So when she cries out, “And now, Willie?”, her plea is heartbreaking, as are the evanescent memories she clings to like sanity itself.

Just as Giblin is an ideal Winnie, so Marinos is a particularly effective Willie, a role that only really comes into its own at the end, when he reveals himself and attempts to claw his way up the mound. Marinos lends this futility truly tragic implications as we wonder whether he is trying to reach Winnie or the revolver that lies beside her head.

Flaws? Despite the pace, Giblin can still lose intensity, although it is always swiftly recovered. Like most productions, this Red Line one struggles with Beckett’s stage direction that Winnie’s parasol catch fire. In this instance it does, but is contrived inelegantly. Yet if Giblin, Marinos and Baldwin have not completely conquered this absurdly challenging play, they’ve come awfully close, and you’d be mad to miss it.

Until July 7.