The Theatreguide.London Review
Young Vic Theatre January-February 2014; February -March 2015
Director Natalie Abrahami and actress Juliet Stevenson have found a newly dark reading of Samuel Beckett's masterpiece (ranking only just below Waiting For Godot in his canon) that will intrigue those who know the play while being fully accessible to those coming to it for the first time.
A woman inexplicably buried up to her waist – and later, to her neck – in the ground chatters cheerfully, goes through her daily rituals, and generally makes the best of things.
Scholars can debate the exact meaning of the central visual metaphor – the hourglass-like passage of time, the journey into the grave – while everyone instinctively responds to it as some non-specific essence of mortality, and the usual interpretation of the play is that if this silly chatterbox can make it through whatever life throws at her, then survival must be hard-wired into the human character. We can make it through life because we don't know how not to.
But far more than any others I've seen, Juliet Stevenson's Winnie is aware of the emptiness and despair that hover at the edge of her consciousness and that she must constantly fight to repress. She is not cheery by nature, but as a political act, a refusal to give in, and in the course of the play we see the toll that the unending struggle takes on her.
Winnie is not alone in the play. Just at the edge of the stage, barely within her sight line, is Willy (David Beames, generously supporting in this thankless role), a decrepit old man (husband? lover?) to whom she speaks and from whom she gets the rare grudging response. Stevenson's Winnie is far more dependent than usual on Willy (or at least the faith that he's still there), approaching real panic when he doesn't respond, just as she does a few other times when her coping mechanisms seem in momentary danger of breaking down.
Stevenson also lets us see Winnie's energy levels vary, her battery running down a couple of times and her ability to remain optimistic waning dangerously. So, instead of the play reassuring us that survival is built into the human condition so that even an empty-headed ditz like Winnie can carry on without even trying, director and actress make it tell us that survival is a constant struggle but that even Winnie can find the strength and determination to keep fighting to the end.
There are things to argue with here. In Tom Gibbons' sound design the cosmic alarm clock that rings to start and punctuate Winnie's days is given a loud, harsh and ominous quality that suggests an actively unfriendly God rather than Beckett's blank universe, while Vicki Mortimer's set, placing Winnie at the base of a hill prone to pebble-slides, gives a too-literal explanation for the visual image that should be allowed to resonate on its own.
There is more than one Hamlet occupying Shakespeare's play, and there may be differing versions of Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. Juliet Stevenson and Natalie Abrahami show us an unexpected version of Winnie in this Happy Days.
The vision of existence is darker, but the message remains cautiously positive, and both this particular play and our appreciation of Beckett are enriched.
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