Saturday, February 15, 2014

Theatre Review : Happy Days by Samuel Beckett - Young Vic Theatre (dir Natalie Abrahami 9/2/14)

Publicity Shot for Happy Days at
Young Vic with Juliet Stevenson
Beckett has somehow managed to pass me by. A West End Godot several years ago was an enjoyable introduction, but since then nothing. Yet now, like No33 buses, four plays come along at once. Admittedly Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby provide three of these plays in the space of an hour, but it a hypnotizing hour, and unlike anything else in the West End. And now, with Happy Days at the Young Vic,I have just been exposed to my second dose of Beckett in the space of a week.

Except, perhaps "dose" is not the right word. It has connotations of something that unpleasant that will do you good - a bit like Beckett's formidable reputation. No one doubts his genius, or his ability to explore the existential depths of the human condition. But for a fun night out? Listening to a despairing monologue from an actor up to her neck in grit? It's not what most immediately springs to mind. Admittedly Not I / Footfalls / Rockaby is not a laugh-a-minute. But Happy Days was apparently written after Beckett's wife asked him to write something cheerier after Krapp's Last Tape, and especially in the first half it is surprisingly light in tone.

Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) is buried up to the waist on some kind of beach. A Klaxon blares, and she awakens to "another heavenly day". She opens her bag to take out her essential accoutrements - toothbrush, mirror, parasol, revolver. A deft flick of the parasol wakens her husband Willie (David Beames), hidden behind a rock. Willie is not a conversationalist - he hides behind his newspaper and utters the occasional monosyllable. Winnie however, talks incessantly - cheerfully, slightly manically reflecting on her situation and harking back to her memories. Her talking is her response to her situation, trapped, helpless, unable to communicate, unable to elicit a response from Willie and ultimately empty. Where Juliet Stevenson's mesmeric performance was most impressive was in conveying the emptiness behind this cheerful, chattering exterior. She has a wonderfully mobile face and her precise hand gestures gave subtle emphasis to every move that she made.

In the second half, the world had closed in on Winnie. Trapped up to her neck under a remorseless sun, whenever she closed her eyes the klaxon blasted her awake and pebbles rolled down around her shoulders from the cliffs below. By now, her optimism has faded, her cheeks are hollow, her chatter tired and despairing, shrouded with inevitability. She cannot of course reach any more the items in her bag which lay strewn around her. She tells with distaste of a course man who had seen her and wondered aloud if she had anything on under the sand - she has been isolated and objectified. In the final moments Willie comes towards her from behind his rock, but - inevitably - cannot reach her.

Winnie could just as well be sitting by the window of her suburban semi, chattering emptily away to Willie whose head is still in the paper, or engrossed in Sky Sports. As the relentlessness of daily existence increases, Winnie would become more submerged in despair, unable to reach out, communicate, sleep. Willie's final efforts to reach her would be equally futile. Beckett's bleak vision may be absurd, but deep down, Winnie and Willie could be any one of us.