For the first week of rehearsal, says Billie Whitelaw, she and Beckett "just sat looking at each other, eye to eye, saying the words together." Samuel Beckett's eyes are reported to be pale blue, though few journalists have ever got close enough to check. His reputation suggests that, at the first bay of a newshound, he will remember urgent bussiness elsewhere; or if really stuck, turn to a close scrutiny of the nearest brick wall.
In one of his rare excursions into directing his own plays, Beckett is doing "Happy Days" in London. The play is virtually a monologue for Winnie, delivered as she sits buried up to her waist -- and later her neck -- in a mound of scorched earth. In the second act, Winnie can move only her eyes, and the Whitelaw eyes are a warm gray-green.
At first, they are also still a bit tense from the long day's rehearsal. Beckett, she says, is very precise, and right to be; he does not direct, he conducts, as though it were music. "It's painful for him to hear me miss a comma, physically painful. But we've made a pact that that is his problem, not mine."
She will ask him wheater Winnie's gesture with her spectacles should be at eye level, or throat level [it can make all the difference to Beckett]. But he never says what the play means, and she doesn't ask that. The nearest they had got was to agree that is was all a bit mad, that Winnie was a complete mess.
In the stasis of Beckett's world, the voice is everything, Whitelaw -- born in Coventry, raised in Bradford and Liverpool -- started as an actress on radio, aged 11. For the next five years she was a regular performer. What did that do for her voice?
"It wrecked it. I've a dreadful inferiority complex about my voice. Because I never went to drama school. So I carry a permanent school satchel on my back; what I do with my voice is trial and error. But if I feel that what i'm doing is right, something happens to my voice."
She made her adult reputation in the grittier kinds of '60s drama, TV and films. Her first Beckett role came when she joined the National Theatre in 1964 [and the other proof of her arrival as a serious actress was taking over from Maggie Smith as Desdemona to Oliver's Othello]. In "Play," the characters are encased in jars, which is not exactly the kind of kitchen-sink realism she had been used to.
But she says, "To me, it wasn't unreal. For me, it had more reality than many of the television plays i'd been doing. The fact I was in a jar didn't worry me." She picks up her copy of "Happy Days" which Beckett is now re-writing as he goes along, so that the printed word is scarcely visible for the handwritten additions.
"I feel that this is the stuff of everyone's life: how to get through the day, to keep hopelessness out. And it's very funny." On the settee in the huge, light sitting room of the Camden Town house where she lives with her husband, playwright Robert Muller, and their son, there's a slightly battered bag, Winnie's props, the things that help her get through her happy, arid days; toothbrush, magnifying glass, mirror, revolver.
Being in Beckett's play has its hazards. If you're not immersed in jars or mounds of earth, you may be asked to perform "Not I" in a hood that leaves only a disembodied mouth spouting in the spotlight. Beckett wanted Whitelaw for this part in the 1973 Court production. "Not I" is a monologue delivered at great speed, and in the middle of it at the dress rehearsal, Whitelaw broke down.
An account of this event, in Diedre Bair's recent biograph "Samuel Beckett," gives the impression that this happened because Beckett, in his obsessive perfectionism, had broken a fine actress and herioc mother who had been trying to hide from him the fact that her son was seriously ill.
Whitelaw was furious about this version which, she says, takes two facts that are separate, puts them together and gives absolutely the wrong impression. Beckett was in fact using their their house as his study to finish work on "Not I' knew of the child's illness, which often meant sleepless nights for Whitelaw, and showed deep concern about it ["He is the most sensitive man, I think, i've ever known."]
The other, separate fact is that the first time she had the hood put over her head, masking her eyes, "I began to suffer, what I think is called sensory deprivation. I got through about three pages, and then I just broke down. I was sobbing, I felt I was tumbling through space, and I could hear my own voice getting faster and faster.
"It's true I broke down, it's true Sam said afterward Billie, Billie, what have I done to you' . . . But then I said, 'That's another hurdle over, now let's go on.' I told Sam he would have to let me have slits in the hood for my eyes, so I could see."
A year or two later, when she was in Micheal Fryan's "Alphabetical Order," she received a note from Beckett, saying that he had written "a little something" for her. Soon after the text of "footfalls" arrived and the inscription on the last page was to her. She was, she says, "absolutely astonished."
She is sent a lot of scrips, but not many come from Nobel Prize winners. She took on her most recent West End role -- Simon Gray's Molly, which she says "did not deserve the indecent haste with which it was taken off" -- because it offered a great part for a woman; which is still rare these days. She took on "Alphabetical Order" because when she read it "my toes were tingling with delight and I didn't care if it ran a day or a week. I wanted to do ito" That one ran. CAPTION: Illustration, "Beckett's eyes are reported to be pale blue, though few journalists have ever got close enough to check."