Earlier this year, I attended a performance at the Young Vic of Beckett’s play Happy Days, directed by Natalie Abrahami. Here is my (very belated) review.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote ‘(h)umor is an almost physiological response to fear. Freud said that humor is a response to frustration–one of several. A dog, he said, when he can’t get out of a gate, will scratch and start digging and making meaningless gestures, perhaps growling or whatever, to deal with frustration (…) or fear’ (A Man Without a Country, 2005). The protagonist of Beckett’s hilarious, harrowing, aggressive, absurd, and often terrifying play–Winnie–is imprisoned, spending both acts almost completely buried in compacted sand and shale. Without wanting to compare her to a dog, Winnie’s obsessive, mechanical, and futile behaviour mimics the desperate scratching of a trapped animal.
Natalie Abrahami’s production at the Young Vic is stark and utilitarian, and could not be more different to another recent staging of a trio of Beckett plays–Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby, performed by Lisa Dwan at the Royal Court Theatre in January–in which the entire theatre was plunged into complete, suffocating darkness. In contrast, the set of Happy Days is floodlit by harsh, fluorescent lighting, mimicking the sun while eliminating any of its comforting, natural light. The audience is also illuminated, and thus feel none of the traditional separation between stage and stalls. As a result, the atmosphere is one of connection rather than distance, and we are unable to escape from the bright, white, irradiated scene before us. The sensory deprivation of Walter Asmus’s production at the aforementioned Royal Court had a rather different effect–one felt disconnected from one’s own body; both miles away and fearfully close to the babbling mouth hovering above the stage.
With Happy Days, we are drawn into Winnie and Willy’s plight, feeling more like witnesses than spectators–I felt at times an intense longing to pull her out and end the suffering. We are both annoyed and sympathetic, Winnie’s incapacitation a constant reminder of her plight, and the source of her seemingly infinite capacity to speak. Similar to ‘Mouth’ in Not I, Winnie cannot stop talking, her prattling forming a defence against the abhorrence of her situation. As with much of Beckett’s work, speech acts as a way to avoid the silence of nothingness–as with the narrator of The Unnamable, speaking is the only way of knowing one exists. Winnie fills her long, empty days with pointless activity, because to do nothing would mean accepting that she is nothing.
Juliet Stevenson captures the manic-depressive mood swings of her character with painful realism–the heaviest lines of dialogue would be easy to miss if it were not for her ability to show Winnie’s mask of sanity slipping, as she shrilly screams for Willy, desperate to be heard, and thus to feel that there is someone there who acknowledges her existence. Inbetween the jokes, which are expertly delivered, lies the sinister darkness which permeates all of Beckett’s comic texts. In this case, it is that for many of us, this frantic need to be seen or heard is what drives much of what we do, and the only way to persevere through life’s relentless struggle is to wake up each morning, and proclaim that today is a ‘happy day’.