Ann Donald talks to an actress who is taking on one of the most demanding roles in the theatre

AN enthusiastic Myra McFadyen declares: ``It's really the female equivalent of playing Hamlet.'' She is talking of her current role as Winnie in Samuel Beckett's textual tour de force Happy Days. For even those non-theatre going members of the public ``that play with the woman buried up to her neck in sand'' is as indelibly imprinted in the image memory banks as the theatrically-literate who instantly equate the esteemed and oft-described Beckett muse Billie Whitelaw as the definitive Winnie as endorsed by ``Sam'' himself.

Never one to pass up such a mammoth challenge, nor indeed a rare chance to work in her homeland, the RSAMD-trained McFadyen has teamed up with promising fledgling company TV Productions in this co-commission by Glasgow's Tramway and Edinburgh Traverse Theatre to concentrate on an intensely extraordinary play that focuses upon one ``rooted'' woman's heavenly day under a scorching sun, her extended chattering, gestures, daily routine, prayers, and song all conducted within the integral presence of quasi-mute husband Willie lying beside her throughout.

Taking a break from intense rehearsals at a Tramway studio, director/designer Stewart Laing, a Citizens' stalwart about to tackle the $17m Broadway musical Titanic later this year, and the surprisingly waif-like figure of McFadyen are both at pains to point out the accessible nature of the work and divest the play of the usual accusations directed at Beckett regarding the ``incomprehensible-existential - absurdist - stream - of- consciousness - opaqueness'' nature of his work that can prove such an effective deterrent to potential audiences.

``Yes, I am doing a play about a woman buried up to her waist and later her neck in earth,'' concedes Laing with a wry grin before touching upon the intrinsic darker elements of decay, Hell and death. ``And yes, sometimes you look at this play and think how very negative and bleak it all is.

``But it is also Beckett's funniest play and constantly swings from pessimism to optimism. I really think that Happy Days is about human resilience as much as anything and regardless of how heinous the circumstances there is something in human beings that will deal with and conquer these obstacles.''

The weighty task of both balancing and conveying Winnie's humour and human resilience falls upon the diminutive 40-year-old McFadyen. Though a well-kent face on the Scottish stage with roles in Bondagers, The Guid Sisters, and The Cone Gatherers and more recently in the film Rob Roy, the actress has spent the last four years working in England with the likes of the Royal National Theatre, Manchester's Royal Exchange, and mime master Jacques Lecoq, and now feels that the role of Winnie has arrived ``at the perfect time for me both in a personal and professional capacity''.

``I've just turned 40,'' she whispers in mock confessional tones, ``and I hope that people will see this as a bit of a departure for me since I've not been up here for a wee while and the last things people saw me in,'' - she hesitates choosing her next words with diplomatic care - ``were in a particular style. I feel as if I'm a bit more grown-up now doing a grown-up play somehow,'' she laughs.

Though ecstatic at the chance to work in Scotland again - ``nobody has asked me in four years,'' she explains with rueful miscomprehension - McFadyen confesses to having been terrified at accepting not only her virgin Beckett role but one previously tackled by the likes of daunting theatrical queens Billie Whitelaw, Peggy Ashcroft and Irene Worth.

She says: ``It's mammoth. Such a complex and challenging piece that it did scare me. Physically but especially mentally it is the hardest thing that I have ever had to do because it is one of these roles that you cannot switch off from. You just have to immerse yourself in it. Winnie becomes part of your everyday life.''

On a more practical basis the physical restrictions of McFadyen's role have not as she feared ``induced the screaming ab-dabs at being buried up to my neck in earth'', but ironically given birth to a very freeing performance. ``I use my hands a lot when I talk so for me not to have the use of my limbs in the second act is actually a great exercise as an actress because instead I have to concentrate on the particular style and rhythm of each word which Beckett has endowed with immense resonance and Stewart has allowed me to explore in my own way and bring a certain emotional colour to it.''

Returning once more to the resonance of her own 40th birthday McFadyen is conscious of the universal questions stirred in her own mind by Winnie's self-examination. ``The play really is about an ordinary woman and so very pertinent to now,'' she stresses.

``It's about a woman getting older, her life, her dreams, her hopes. It raises all the really big questions and cliche-ridden stuff of `What Is Life and Why Are We Here?' But at the same time you come away thinking `Isn't Life Wonderful'.'' she says, sitting on the edge of her seat and grinning contentedly.

Perhaps not for Winnie but for Myra McFadyen it appears that Life Begins At Forty, irrespective of whether you are buried up to your neck in earth or not.

n Happy Days by TV Productions is at The Tramway, Glasgow, from tonight until Saturday, at 8pm. Edinburgh Traverse Theatre from June 27-30, at 8pm.