Hardly a day goes by without some blessing in disguise.
In an interview conducted in 1994, Samuel Beckett claimed that the inspiration for his 1960 play Happy Days was trying to imagine the ‘most dreadful’ thing that could happen to someone. He came up with: not being allowed to sleep, sinking into the ground alive, being oppressed by endless sunshine with no hope of shade, and all you have with you is a bag full of useless accessories. He then said, ‘I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.’ This is the rather absurd premise of Happy Days, which requires a great deal of the actress who takes on the role of Winnie – for the first half she is buried up to her waist in sand, and up to her neck in the second. All the while she has to keep up an almost gratingly cheerful monologue, reminding herself what she finds so wonderful about life.
Happy Days is a difficult, arguably unfathomable play, one that invites different readings from every single member of the audience. But that is also what is so powerful about it: we can all relate to Winnie’s struggle in some way, for Happy Days is a statement on the human condition, and a metaphor that generates countless interpretations. Is the sand (or scree in this production) that gradually overcomes her supposed to represent the drudgery of life? Do these two, somewhat repetitive, hours stand for one of those moments (here expanded and writ large) when we feel like giving up having realised the futility of life? Is Winnie’s situation – her immobility, her isolation, her terror at not being heard – a metaphor for the loneliness that can overcome us if we don’t work on our relationships?
Happy Days is full of philosophical references – it’s easy to see the influence of Aristotle, Seneca, Lucretius, Descartes, not to mention the tragedies of Aeschylus and Dante’s Divina Commedia – but it is important that we don’t leave the theatre with a purely academic reading of the production; it has to be relevant to our lives, now. Winnie’s monologue forces us to confront the fact that we are all born and must all toil until we die; death is inevitable, as is the loss of our physical and/or mental faculties along the way. This then leads us ask what is it that makes this life worth living, and what do we have to look forward to given that we already know the ending? It is a powerful, terrible question.
Beckett’s Winnie is supposed to be Irish, but Juliet Stevenson and director Natalie Abrahami have given her a very English interpretation. This Winnie wears a floral-print blue dress, a sun-hat and is determined to see the bright side of everything. Her perseverance, her almost excruciatingly nauseating positivity, and her determination to relish even the smallest of activities – such as brushing her teeth – display an English practicality and resolution to ‘make do’, but also that curiously English habit of ignoring something that’s right in front of you.
Stevenson is a wonderfully dynamic and expressive performer, and makes full use of the parts of her body that remain above ground; even though she can barely move and is arguably on the approach to death, she still feels full of energy and vitality. Stevenson and Abrahami manage to bring out the more comic elements of the text, though I felt they sometimes failed to do justice to the sheer elemental terror of Winnie’s position. This wasn’t helped by Vicki Mortimer’s set, which, instead of further involving the audience and encouraging us to share in Winnie’s situation, felt rather distanced and set apart, emphasizing the absurd rather than the universal. Nonetheless, this is a powerful interpretation of a tough play, and one that is profoundly moving.