In Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, we see two characters, elderly couple Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) and Willie (David Beames), at the mercy of the elements on a baking-hot cliff base. We never learn why they are there even though they allude to their life before this place. Not that the audience would be partial to that information; it would not suit Beckett’s style and existential message. We see them seek purpose in their bizarre existence, hoping for another happy day.
Regardless of an individual’s like or dislike of Beckett’s theatre, this is an outstanding production. A monolithic, craggy cliff face drops into a pool of sparkling gravel. For the first half, Winnie is buried up to her waist but impeccably groomed. Willie dwells in a crevice out of sight most of the time. When he initially emerges, his back and shoulders are a painful landscape of bruises and blistered sunburn. Winnie speaks incessantly whereas Willie is almost completely silent. A jarring “bell” (really a loud, gratingly tonal noise) wakes them at the start of the day and any time they are at risk of nodding off. It is as disruptive to the audience as it is to the characters.
Winnie find fragments of joy in her pointless existence, be it inventorying her handbag contents or Willie’s rare contribution. This is cause for a declaration that it is indeed a happy day. She is mostly energetic and perky for much of the first half, but the character is not without nuance and emotional depth. She herself credibly exists, her situation much less so. Stevenson’s performance as Winnie is the driving force of this production, evoking a range of emotions from the audience.
The second half is much more bleak; Winnie is less forthcoming with her praise of the day. A landslide has buried her up to her neck. Has Willie survived? This is only revealed at the end. Despite a bruised face and complete entrapment, Winnie eventually reveals that it is still a happy day, with a pistol lying inches from her face but completely out of reach.
This play and production give the audience an in-yer-face version of existentialism, forcing an examination of the human condition and female entrapment. It makes for most harsh viewing, but theatrically excellent.
Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2
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