Sands of time
Steve Cramer talks to director and actor Alison Peebles about having multiple sclerosis and preparing for her role in Beckett’s Happy Days
Here’s something you may not know: Samuel Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner to play first class cricket. This might only be of significance to a quiz master, but for the following story, possibly apocryphal, yet terribly plausible, that’s circulated among Beckett scholars over the years: One fine morning, as the sun shone bright over the university ground in Dublin, the wicket keeper for his club turned to Beckett, who fielded adjacently at first slip and said, ‘Lovely day’. Getting a non committal gesture from the great man, he added, ‘Kind of day that makes you glad to be alive.’ ‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ Beckett replied.
It is an anecdote that epitomises Beckett’s reputation as a miseryguts, which has, for many years, been riposted by his admirers with many claims about the rich humour of his work. To hear his apologists go on about it, you’d think that Beckett’s capacity for comedy exceeded that of Aristophanes, and mightily eclipsed the Cowards and Ortons of the last century. Anyone who has sat through a well produced Beckett knows that this is not the case. Though there’s a certain music hall humour in his ‘existential comedies’ it’s hardly this that makes him valuable. Those who paint him as the greatest of comic writers are simply protesting too much. Reruns of Dad’s Army have probably made you laugh more.
This is why Alison Peebles, who is preparing the role of Winnie in Dominic Hill’s production of Happy Days at Dundee Rep, seems so grounded. She calls the play ‘quite funny at times’, but leaves it at that. The piece is important, but for reasons beyond humour. In it, we find Winnie, who is buried in sand, at first up to her waist, then to her neck. She keeps chatting to her barely seen, barely listening husband, and distracts herself with the various accoutrements of her handbag, a music box, and perhaps more alarmingly, a revolver. How many folk feel the force of the metaphor? The sense of life and relationships as both an urgent need and an entrapment, of age encroaching, things not moving on, and of the distractions offered by consumer objects and one way conversations?
Peebles points to the play’s accessibility, often as underrated in Beckett as its humour is overrated. ‘What I find interesting is how many people who have nothing to do with the theatre know the play,’ she says. ‘I’ve met all kinds of people who know it. I’ve taken to saying, “no, it’s not Happy Days with the Fonz”, but they know Beckett’s play. It might be seen by some people as very deep and intellectual, but it’s actually a great play about life, love, ageing, relationships, self-image, all sorts of things that work on any level. You can see what it says about relationships - the slightest little word or gesture from her man helps Winnie go on for another day - there’s so much about human relationships there.”
Peebles recently revealed that she is suffering from multiple sclerosis. In light of this has the role taken on particular significance for her? ‘Of course, there’s a certain extra meaning for me, since I can’t move for a good deal of the play, especially the way her mobility is affected progressively, since MS is a progressive disease. But telling people about it has been a good thing. I was afraid it would stop me getting work, but that hasn’t happened at all.’
Dundee Rep, Sat 26 May-Sat 9 Jun.