The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive, we have filed our reviews of two past productions of Happy Days on this page.
Samuel Beckett is the greatest writer of the Twentieth Century and, with the possible addition of Franz Kafka, the most essential. And Happy Days is one of his true masterpieces.
I just thought I had better make that clear, as preparation for saying that, even though this new production starring Felicity Kendal is seriously flawed, it is still a must-see for anyone who has never seen the play. It is just too good a work, and major productions only come along about once a decade.
This is the virtual monologue (there is a second, almost speechless role, adequately played here by Col Farrell) of a woman we first meet buried up to her waist in sand; by Act Two she's buried up to her neck. Despite this powerful visual symbol of mortality, she is remarkably cheery. Despite - or perhaps because of - being not very bright, she manages to find ways to make it through each day with a combination of reminiscence, little rituals and the capacity for joy in the tiny pleasures and surprises life still offers.
And so, says Beckett, if she can do it, then there must be some inherent capacity for survival built into the human animal - we literally don't know how NOT to make it through the day and keep on going. (Beckett fans will recognise a thematic tie to Waiting for Godot. It's plays like this, with their reassurance that, no matter how little you allow for human strength, we can still survive, that won him the Nobel Prize.)
The challenge to an actress playing Winnie is to communicate the paradoxical combination of air-headed triviality and unconquerable steel, and one would think that Felicity Kendal's gamin quality would work very nicely in this role. But oddly she has been directed by Peter Hall to suppress all her Felicity-Kendal-ness and just race through the lines in a flat near-gabble.
Her Winnie has neither charm nor innocence; she's just a mouthpiece for a rush of words. They are brilliant words, and they survive the underplaying, but even a master like Beckett deserves some help from a production, and he gets very little here.
This production reinforces my suspicion that there are two directors out there named Sir Peter Hall. The one who occasionally works at the National Theatre or the RSC is brilliant. The one who works in the West End is terrible.
In addition to evidently offering his star little guidance in the role and even suppressing what she might have brought to it, director Peter Hall has allowed designer Lucy Hall to create a set that screams misunderstanding of (if not overt contempt for) the play. In place of Beckett's mound of earth, clearly a metaphor for the encroaching grave, Lucy Hall has created a vertical target-like spiral with Felicity Kendal's head popping out of the bullseye.
There are so many irrelevant suggestions to this picture - at moments she looks like Lewis Carroll's caterpillar, at others like the singing happy-face flower of a children's cartoon - and none of the simple horror of Beckett's image, that it is hard to imagine what they thought they were doing.
And yet this IS one of the last century's greatest plays. I spoke afterwards with someone who hadn't known it before, and he said that he quickly tuned out the actress and the set and just listened to the words, and was enthralled. And I fear that it is only if you do the same that I can heartily recommend this revival.
I am such a fan of Fiona Shaw that I would happily watch her act even if she was buried up to her neck in the earth, and of course that's what I just did, for half of Samuel Beckett's play.
This is the one in which the woman is buried up to her waist in Act One and her neck in Act Two, who still manages to maintain her sense of wonder, her capacity for happiness and her ability to go on - Beckett's frequently comic reassurance that the human animal simply does not know how not to survive.
And Shaw is by far the best thing in what is otherwise a surprisingly misconceived, misdesigned and misdirected production.
Her interpretation is closer to Billie Whitelaw's than Peggy Ashcroft's (to name the two great Winnies of the past) - a Winnie who is aware of the existential horrors she is warding off and who uses her intelligence and determination to hold them at bay. (Ashcroft's terminally silly woman, triumphing without realising she was, may actually have made a more optimistic statement.)
Shaw's great talent has always been to anchor the most extreme characters in a solid reality, and her Winnie is a no-nonsense Dublin housewife at heart, getting through her symbolic trials as she might cope with unemployment or any other domestic setback, through sheer roll-up-your-sleeves grit.
You don't feel, as the other two great Winnies (in their different ways) made you feel, that her triumph is assured, but you do know that if she goes down, she'll go down fighting.
She is, of course, also frequently very funny, particularly in her throw-away readings of some of Beckett's lines.
But, as I said, there is almost nothing else to like about this production, and a lot to dislike immensely. We can begin with Tom Pye's set design.
Instead of the single mound of earth Beckett calls for, Pye fills the large Lyttelton stage with the jumble of a bomb site, full of chunks of concrete and bits of rubbish, and with a rear projection suggesting that this goes on for miles.
Instead of letting us discover Winnie stuck in the middle of this, we first see the brightly-lit stage set without her, then a semi-transparent half-curtain descends and we see the shapes of stagehands helping the actress into position and scampering off, and only then do we find her in her mound - all totally destroying the intended effect.
And the mound itself is so badly designed that from most of the audience she merely looks like she's sitting behind a cluttered desk, rather than being stuck in the earth. (The buried-up-to-her-neck effect is equally unconvincing).
There might be some reason for turning the almost silent Willie (Tim Potter) from an old man to a yob in his undershirt, but its point is lost and the effect is just disconcerting. Meanwhile, for all the strong effects in Fiona Shaw's performance, her Irish accent is allowed to wax and wane in what is simply sloppy direction.
The semi-comic moment of Winnie's parasol catching fire is turned into an excessively large firebomb going off in another part of the stage - and surely surely surely it is a mistake to play that rock'n'roll song from the TV sitcom of the same name during the interval.
All these flaws and errors of judgement must ultimately be laid at the feet of director Deborah Warner, which is the biggest shock of all, since virtually everything Warner has ever directed has been brilliant and excitingly right. But even Homer nods, and we must just write this off as a rare and curious misstep by the director.
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Review - Happy Days - Arts 2003