The role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is, as Dame Peggy Ashcroft once said, a ‘summit part’, that actresses will want to play in the same way that actors aim at Hamlet.
It’s surely one of the greatest ever written for an older woman in western theatre, and it requires an actor with impeccable skills and vast experience to make it work. For the long first act (60 minutes), Winnie is buried up to her waist in a pile of rocky rubble in a desolate landscape, with only her black handbag and a yellow parasol for company — that, and her barely glimpsed husband Willie, who reveals himself from behind the rocky heap only by the top of his head and with a few bare words.
The theme is typical of Beckett and his nihilistic view of the world — as Estragon says in Waiting for Godot, “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes – it’s awful.” As a leading member of the mid-century Theatre of the Absurd (a phrase invented by literary critic Martin Esslin), Beckett believed that the world was beyond rational explanation, and that people had to commit themselves to something important to make life meaningful. The stripped static action and the minimal dialogue were revolutionary for the time (the drab, nihilistic post-war period in Europe), but they still shock and disturb us into horrified silence. But not to the extent that we are bored. We absorb some of Winnie’s determined stoic optimism, and stay with her to the end.
The theme and the setting may be bleak, but director Wesley Enoch and designer Penny Challen in this QTC production have cleverly changed our point of view. We do not enter into an empty theatre, but into an art gallery, with a background of noisy audience chatter and the huge gold-framed scrim which portrays John Glover’s early 19th century painting of the Australian bush, ‘Launceston and the River Tamar’.
It’s almost the Brechtian technique of alienation, a warning that we must not allow ourselves to become too absorbed in the reality of the portrayal/painting, but look for our own meaning in it. Then the scrim is drawn aside, and we see it no more until the end of the first act and the beginning and end of the second, leaving us between two worlds, as it were.
The Australianness of the painting gives the play a more universal setting, too, just as it’s possible to see the mound in which Winnie is imprisoned as a kind of Uluru, a rough beast that has its own stirrings of life which will eventually drag all of us down into death.
Alan Lawrence’s extraordinarily apt soundscape also adds to this feeling of otherness, and his simulated audience chatter background sets us in another dimension, where we are both part of and set back from the experience of the world. Can we, should we, allow ourselves to become absorbed into the world of Winnie and Willie (and the pun, I’m sure, is intentional, as he becomes less and less effectual in their relationship)? It would be trite to say that Happy Days is a metaphor for life, but bells and chatter and futile conversations are all part of it, and we can find meaning in them or not, as we please, and in some strange way Lawrence’s musical background allows us to seek for it.
It’s easy to class this as a one-hander, but Winnie’s husband Willie is an essential part of its meaning. Even though he is scarcely seen until a few minutes at the end of the play, he needs to be there to give Winnie’s rapidly-diminishing life some meaning. He’s a prop for her memory, a reminder to us that she does have a past, and that he was (is?) an important part of it. It’s not the thankless role it may seem, and Steven Tandy, in just a few grunts and uncommunicative words, makes him the full figure that Winnie needs him to be. And he is the one redeeming note in this futile universe, as he painfully crawls towards her at the end of the play in an attempt to communicate.
Winnie. Now here’s a character full of possibilities. I believe that the play was actor Carol Burns’ own choice, as part of QTC’s DIVA series of one-woman shows (sorry, Steven Tandy, but this is Winnie’s show, even though you are necessary to give it more depth and vitality). In Winnie’s more sombre moments, we can see her as Blanche du Bois in ; when she begins fussing about details, she’s Hyacinth Bouquet.
As does Hyacinth, she surrounds herself with things to give meaning to her shrinking life, all of which remind her of moments in her rapidly fading past — the yellow parasol, her mirror and lipstick, her gorgeous hat, a hand gun which she is too lethargic to use, a toothbrush, a music box. But when, by the second act, she has slid even further into the rock, with only her head visible above the surface, so that she cannot even touch these things, she still, almost in Monty Python fashion, manages to look on the bright side of life.
It’s heart-breaking, because by the end of the play she has lost control over her actions, and cannot even reach the pistol to end it all. She is indeed the victim of an abstract indifferent universe, who has no language but a cry, and who cannot, as in Tennyson’s In Memoriam, weep and feel her father near. Yes, the play is full of literary allusions, most of them Winnie’s, although we can and do draw our own.
This cosmic vision of pessimism and paralysis, despair and destiny, wanting and waiting is not altogether bleak, though. Even though by the second act Winnie has slid even further down the hole to oblivion, there are tiny details that offer a suggestion of life continuing, if not for Winnie. The rocky desert has a few plants still alive, she never completely loses her vitality, and in the last few minutes Willie manages to crawl towards her and look her in the eyes. Then it’s curtains for everyone, this multi-layered world ending (pace T. S Eliot) not with a bang, nor even with a whimper. The rest is indeed silence — except for the roars of delight from a small but intelligent audience who remained transfixed through the whole performance.
Certainly the best production I’ve seen this year.