Karen Dunbar’s talent puts her top of the heap – even when she’s up to her waist in earth in a Beckett classic
Scene One. We’re in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games and the countdown is on. At home, a billion viewers are tuning in for the opening ceremony. You’d expect the performers in Celtic Park to be nervous wrecks. But not Karen Dunbar.
That’s what this play is about: the human fear of solitude and silence
She idly looks up at the sky and thinks, “That’s nice, the rain’s stayed off.”
She notices a seagull.
And she’s on.
“I could not comprehend the enormity of it,” she says today. “I had no nerves because it was beyond nerves.”
Scene Two. We’re backstage again, this time at the Tron Theatre. Artistic director Andy Arnold is watching Dunbar with interest. The audience is ready and waiting, and here is the performer exchanging banter with the crew. Laughing and joking, she could be anywhere. But the moment she gets her cue, she’s giving the audience her all as she gets her teeth into Tam O’ Shanter.
It gives Arnold an idea. Here is a performer who seems to be at ease in front of an audience and comfortable with the rich language of Robert Burns. Would she not fare brilliantly if he cast her in the role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days?
It would be unexpected casting, but this is a character, famously buried up to her waist, who has to hold the audience’s attention with a script that, in its own way, is just as rich and exacting as an 18th-century Scots poem. He offers her the part and she agrees to give it a go.
“Winnie’s got a lot of comedy in her and a lot of warmth,” she says, sitting in the Tron bar in a rehearsal break. “If I can get that, then I can hopefully get into her sadness as well.”
Scene Three. We’re in the late 1970s and we can see the building site next to the cul-de-sac in Ayr where the six-year-old Dunbar has grown up. When nobody is around, it doubles as a playground for the local children. Today, the little girl is on her own and as she climbs on top of a pile of sand, she sings her heart out. Even without anyone to hear her, she seems to have her career mapped out.
That seems especially true today. Not only has she been a performer since the youngest age, but all these years later, she is once again performing on a mound of earth.
Immersing herself in Beckett’s strange – and strangely familiar – world, Dunbar arrived in rehearsals word-perfect and quite in love with the eerie poetry of his writing. Winnie is a woman trapped in an existential nightmare, who seems content to pass the time with a “mustn’t grumble” stoicism. Having known nothing about Beckett when Arnold approached her, Dunbar has become a dedicated fan, determined to explore the play’s depths.
“It’s the first time in my career that I’ve learned the script beforehand,” she says. “But knowing what Happy Days is – basically an hour-and-a-half monologue – I didn’t want the stress of rehearsing and not knowing the lines.”
She shows me the notebook in which she’s copied the whole thing out by hand, colour-coded for speech and stage directions. “It turns it into something unique because it’s my handwriting,” she says. “Knowing it in advance makes such a difference.”
The casting may come as a surprise, but it is consistent with a performer who has been steadily extending her range. Where once she was known purely for the sketch comedy of Chewin’ The Fat and The Karen Dunbar Show, as well as for being one of the brightest stars of the King’s Theatre panto, now she’s just as likely to be found doing straight theatre. Since starring in Denise Mina’s A Drunk Woman Looks At The Thistle, she’s appeared at London’s National Theatre in Men Should Weep, in Edinburgh in The Guid Sisters, in Belfast in Can’t Forget About You (directed by Conleth Hill, aka Lord Varys in Game Of Thrones) and in London in an all-female version of Henry IV.
Her comic talents won’t go to waste in Happy Days, but they’ll be subjected to a different discipline. “It’s not as if it’s Anna Karenina,” she says. “I’m doing a mild imitation of my mother because she had a very scathing, one-liner, cutting wit. That can be fitting because it’s funny and tragic as well. It’s a different depth of funny.”
What it means is keeping her comic talents in check and finding power in restraint. “It’s like a nucleus buzzing around,” she says. “If it has an explosion in the right place at the right time, then it’s so much stronger than if peppered all through. Happy Days is all deep stuff, so to come up for a wee bit of air sometimes with a witticism is a welcome relief. I’m enjoying the intensity of it.”
What’s easy to forget about Beckett is that, for all the existential despair, his characters do go on. Some life-force compels them to continue in spite of everything. His acid humour is a manifestation of that. “One of my mantras is ‘What is laughter but making the unbearable bearable?’” says Dunbar. “That’s sorted me through a lot of stuff. Although laughing doesn’t feel right, it makes the tragedy almost palatable.”
Now 44, she is being reminded of her own mortality, not least after the death of her father last year. She’s thinking back also to her mother, who died 23 years ago at the age of 65. “She was a very smart woman, always gloves on in the street, old school. In her last year-and-a-half she had a stroke that totally immobilised her and paralysed her down the left-hand side. That memory is there in the ether.”
She’s recently moved house, but near her old flat in Glasgow’s West End she would frequently walk past a nursing home at the same time as she was committing the script to memory. “It felt like I was looking at a picture of what I had just been working on,” she says. “Nursing homes are great facilities, but it is just where you are with your life. There’s no getting out. You’re not going anywhere after that. That’s what this play is about: the human fear of solitude and silence.”
Funnily enough, that’s not a million miles from the Lonely Shopkeeper, one of the unexpectedly popular characters she played in Chewin’ The Fat. “There was something about the reality of that woman’s situation, the loneliness of it, that the audience identified with. It made her more memorable, not just as a comic character, but someone they looked forward to seeing. Even my dad had said to somebody, ‘Do you think Karen’s lonely?’”
She was no such thing – or no more than any of us – but the woman who sang to a billion people at the launch of the Commonwealth Games is now all too willing to enter the solitary mindscape of Happy Days. “Beckett would put in a pause in the same way that a composer would put a break in the music,” says the former karaoke host. “I love silences – they used to make my skin crawl, but maybe it’s with getting older that I’m much more comfortable with them. I’m really loving the sacred pause. It goes into another dimension.”
• Happy Days, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 15–23 May; Can’t Forget About You, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 1–25 July