They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that is definitely true of Beckett’s absurdist play Happy Days. The audience are presented with the powerful image of a woman buried up to her waist (and later her neck), and it is in this position that the protagonist remains throughout the play. This may not sound like obvious territory for compelling theatre but don’t let that put you off. Natalie Abrahami’s production is utterly captivating.
Winnie’s only companion is her husband Willie. He spends most of his time in a hole out of sight, while she chatters on performing her daily routine. This includes documenting the contents of her bag, deliberating about when is the optimum time to sing her song, trying to summon those “unforgettable lines” and worrying about whether she has brushed her hair.
The role of Winnie has been dubbed the female equivalent of King Lear and it is easy to see why aside from the parallel themes of aging and the descent into madness; it is an epic part. Juliet Stevenson expertly traverses the line between comedy and tragedy. Although trapped in the ground the poised movements of her upper body have a balletic quality as she performs the vocal marathon of the text. At two hours including an interval this is quite a feat.
Winnie is the eternal optimist, thankful for what she considers to be life’s “great mercies” but we are painfully aware that she knows exactly what is happening to her and this foreboding lurks beneath the surface. Stevenson has bucked the recent trend of playing Winnie with an Irish accent instead opting to play her as very middle class, English, perfectly embodying the sentiment of keeping calm and carrying on. The play beautifully captures the resilience of the human spirit even when buried up to her neck Winnie finds small pleasures commenting “those are happy days when there are sounds.” David Beams’ Willie offers perfect support on the periphery.
Winnie appears like an animal in a zoo. At once engulfed and exposed by Vicki Mortimer’s impressive eroded, cascading cliff set and Paule Constable’s harsh lighting. The sound provided by Tom Gibbons creates an unsettling underscore punctuated by the occasional ringing of the bell- a disturbing sound like a cross between a pneumatic drill and something used in torture- which never failed to make me jump.
Its not easy subject matter but the play is rich with meaning. I highly recommend you go and see it. Beckett appears to be having a bit of a moment in London with the not i/footfalls/rockaby trilogy recently transferring from the Royal Court to the West End. May it continue.
By Amelia Sutherland