Buried in a desert, eventually up to her neck. Deprived of sleep by a bell that in Natalie Abrahami’s Young Vic production is an ear-splitting, metallic klaxon. And all the while being slowly baked by a merciless sun. Yet Winnie’s cheery optimism never ceases to amaze.
But then, if Samuel Beckett’s heroine — played by a gaunt Juliet Stevenson with keeping-up-appearances dignity —was all “woe-is-me” about her unhappy lot, what a dirge the evening would be. Don’t get me wrong. This is still theatre to slit your wrists to, but there is nothing else on offer that is simultaneously so despairing and funny.
Vicki Mortimer’s design is a wedge of rock landscape that reaches up to a rectangle of white sky. It’s like one of those textbook diagrams that in cross-section reveal geology below ground. You can imagine Winnie’s legs frozen in a seam of granite. Above ground, her hair stiffly retains the curls from the last time she went to the hairdresser.
Beckett’s metaphor for the human condition — the brevity, the solitude and the futility — may seem unsubtle 54 years after he wrote it. But the language is miraculous and the humour deliciously subversive.
On top of everything, Winnie is going blind. “Oh well. Seen enough,” she says breezily.
There are enough one liners here to fill a Neil Simon play. And this superbly judged production ends with the strangest of curtain calls with Winnie’s cave-dwelling husband Willie (David Beames) lying immobile on the ground and Winnie, now visible only from the neck up, frozen in mute despair. Lights signal when to applaud. And as the audience leaves, Stevenson’s Winnie is still trapped in her torment, blinking occasionally.