By Angela Matheson
By Samuel Beckett
Director Simon Phillips
Designer Mary Moore
With Ruth Cracknell and Allan Penney
Sydney Theatre Company
Reviewed by Angela Matheson
Buried to the waist in sand, Ruth Cracknell is Winnie, the aged housewife of the apocalypse. Time is running out — the lipstick she pulls lovingly from her precious black bag is worn flat and the toothpaste is finished. She is stranded, doomed to a slow death as the futile horror that is her life creeps like the sand, inexorably upward, burying her alive.
Behind the dune is Willy, her husband. He is rarely seen, suggested by the top of his sun hat or the back of a thumbed newspaper. He has nothing to say and nothing to give. Yet he is Winnie's lifeline — the mere blowing of his nose offers relief from the monotony of the searing desert that is the landscape of the play, sending Winnie into an ecstasy as she realises that today is "Another happy day!"
Beckett's message is deadly — life is senseless and action is futile. Winnie, like the characters in Waiting for Godot, is univeralised to encapsulate the banality of human endeavour as it attempts to make meaning from the meaningless.
It is a boring message — ignorant, ahistorical and intensely humanist. A message to slash your wrists by.
But the production is superb. Ruth Cracknell's performance is masterful. Each emotion suffered by Winnie in her brave yet pathetic determination to wrench happiness from life is so heartfelt and familiar that the existential dimension of the play becomes personalised. The naturalness, the flesh and blood reality of Winnie as she struggles with her treacherous condition, is what is compelling.
By the second half, Winnie is buried to her chin. Few roles challenge the actress like this — how can a talking head maintain the interest of an audience for 40 minutes? Cracknell does it, with a psychological monologue of despair which teeters, at times, on the maniacal as Winnie clings to the lie that her life has many mercies and has been a series of many happy days.
Designer Mary Moore enhances Cracknell's performance with a parched, cracked dune-scape dazzled by searing white light. Winnie, who has fought so hard to stay groomed and civilised by clinging to her belongings — hairbrush, music box, emery board —
becomes merged with the dune as the spinifex grows in her hair and entwines through her possessions.
The production is framed by the insistent harsh ringing of an alarm — both a wake-up call and a death knell.