Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Trevor Nunn
Poor old Winnie doesn’t have much of a life. Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is here again and we find her stuck deeper and deeper in a mound of earth, but this time at the Riverside Studios, perilously close to a stretch of the Thames that is tidal.
Director Trevor Nunn’s revival marks the 60th anniversary of Beckett’s absurdist comedy of frightfully cheerful despair. The play is a near monologue, interrupted only by a few words and grunts from Willie (Simon Wolfe), Winnie’s henpecked husband who is entrenched in another hole nearby. He sleeps through most of his wife’s ramblings as she recounts the mundanities of life and reflects on the unstoppable passage of time. Every day, it seems, replicates the one that preceded it, all of them, in the end, “happy”.
Lisa Dwan’s Winnie is often a comic delight, shielding herself from the sun with a flimsy parasol and worrying that she could “put on flesh” and make her home too tight. However, overall, Dwan seems less concerned with milking the comedy than with mining the tragedy, her every syllable dripping with a sense of rage at her character’s hopelessness. Her performance makes Nunn’s interpretation of the play much darker than many that have gone before, but, blessed with a rich Irish accent, she could well have found the voice that was in the playwright’s head when he wrote Winnie’s words.
Robert Jones’ set design, beautifully lit by Tim Mitchell, makes a stunning impact. Extending to the width of two wide cinema screens, it resembles the view from an aeroplane window, Winnie’s mound looking like a fluffy cloud in the foreground. Thanks too to sound designer Johnny Edwards for ringing bells loud enough to rouse the whole of West London.
Trying to make too much sense of this play can ruin it, but it seems reasonable to assume that the mound of earth is a metaphor for constraints placed around everyday existences. Certainly the ravages of ageing are inescapable, but we can think of other constraints in terms of, for example, political oppression, social immobility or, given a topical slant, lockdown. Beckett is not specific and Nunn offers few pointers. The writer is not telling us, individually or collectively, to acquiesce like Winnie nor to put on a happy face and shrug our shoulders, rather he is gently mocking our tendency to do so.
At 90 minutes plus interval, the play’s central premise is stretched about as far as it could go. It will not be to everyone’s taste, maybe not even to Winnie’s, although she would take the glass half full approach to it. In fairness, we should see it in at least the same light.
Runs until 25 July 2021