Happy Days @ The Young Vic Theatre

Happy Days @ The Young Vic Theatre

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The Young Vic Theatre, 23 January – 8 March.

Comparing the reactions of exasperated or simply bored theatre-goers with those of enthusiastic theatre critics is just one of the entertainments on offer when you go to a Beckett play. During the interval of the Natalie Abrahami-directed production of Happy Days, which has been greeted in the press by unanimous approval, one woman could be heard to protest that she was “not really in the mood for tedious monologue”. Evidently someone had not got the memo.

Image credit: Alistair Muir via The Telegraph
Image credit: Alistair Muir via The Telegraph

And, in any case, when exactly is one ever in a tedious-monologue-sort-of-mood? Spare a thought, I couldn’t help thinking, for poor Winnie, buried up to her waist in a mound of gravel throughout the first act and up to her neck throughout the second, with nothing to amuse her but her bag of possessions and the extremely limited conversation of her husband, Willie (so not quite a monologue, then). She is woken in the morning by an excruciatingly loud, grinding siren, which goes off again whenever she subsequently relapses into sleep, perhaps also serving to rouse a certain audience member from her slumber.

Spare a thought, for that matter, for Juliet Stevenson, who has to play the part of Winnie every day. Well before the performance officially starts she is already out on stage, her entirely motionless upper body in full view of the audience. At the interval she is denied the chance to bemoan the tedium of it all over a gin and tonic, instead remaining put as the mound is built up around her by the backstage crew until only her head protrudes.

What else can Winnie do, then, but speak? Buoyed by recurrent catchphrases, she searches for material to talk about, reaching now back into her memory, where a number of amusing anecdotes are at least partially retrieved; now into her bag, the contents of which include a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb – and a revolver (“a comfort to know you’re there”, she tells it).

Willie, meanwhile, keeps things moving by occasionally reading out scarcely coherent fragments from his newspaper. His largest single verbal contribution is a succinct definition of the word ‘hog’ – “Castrated male swine. Reared for slaughter” – to which Winnie responds, joyously, “Oh this is a happy day!”

Is Happy Days, finally, a tedious experience? Brutal, I think, would be a better word, but the rewards along the way – and at the finish line – are actually hugely enjoyable. The effort required, an initial investment only, is not one I begrudge. Stevenson’s performance is remarkable: agonizing and electrifying, she is at once fragile and heroic. Beckett demands that we spare a thought, maybe even two, but in the end that isn’t really so much to ask.

 

Billy Wilson

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