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January 29, 2007

Beckett for those who don't like Beckett: Happy Days - Samuel Beckett

Posted by David Wootton

Samuel Beckett's Happy Days
directed by Deborah Warner
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory 18th January - 1st March 2007

David Wootton - the University of York's Anniversary Professor of History - is converted to Beckett by Deborah Warner's production of Happy Days.

I don't like Beckett. I'm not alone. I went to the official opening night of a new production of Happy Days, starring Fiona Shaw and directed by Deborah Warner, and the circle was half empty. Truth to tell, I didn't choose to go - Alison bought the tickets, and even she was sceptical as she is a far from unconditional fan of Fiona Shaw. The last Beckett I saw was Endgame, with Michael Gambon and Lee Evans: I don't seem to have reviewed it, so I can't confirm what I thought of it at the time, but my memory is that I didn't like it. A bleak combination of misery and Music Hall humour, and a far from joyful night out. "What's the point of Beckett?" I wondered; the point, I decided, is that there isn't one. Even really good acting (and Gambon and Evans were both fine) can't redeem its profound pointlessness.

So it is with some astonishment that I have to say that I not only thought this production was absolutely fantastic; I also began reluctantly to acknowledge that this is one of the cases where received opinion really is right - Beckett truly is a genius. The audience agreed with me. It is true that the front row of the stalls seemed to consist of friends of the actors, who formed a cheering claque at the end, but even the most churlish onlooker could hardly dispute that this was a bravura performance.

What's the point? It's obvious, of course, that Beckett introduces us to a world without a point, a world with no prospect of redemption or transfiguration, of authentic meaning or of fulfilled purpose. I was astonished how familiar I was with Happy Days, which I've never seen before: I must have read reviews. There was Winnie buried to her waist in Act One, and buried to her neck in Act Two. Bits of dialogue seemed eerily familiar, perhaps from a radio programme on Beckett I heard a while ago. But what I had expected was something profoundly abnormal, artificial, aberrant. I was suspecting lots of pretentious nonsense:

To think there are times one cannot take off one's hat, not if one's life were at stake.
(Trust Beckett to get the subjunctive right.) Instead Alison and I were soon doubled up with laughter as Winnie's complaints about Willie's lack of attention eerily echoed her daily complaints about me:
Not that I flatter myself you hear much, no Willie, God forbid. Days perhaps when you hear nothing. But days too when you answer. So that I may say at all times, even when you do not answer and perhaps hear nothing, something of this is being heard…
Typed out this doesn't look like how Alison sounds at all; it's the brilliance of Fiona Shaw's performance to make Beckett's portentous monologue sound like one half of a perfectly normal daily conversation between a middle-aged woman trying to communicate her frustrations and her inadequate, distracted but perhaps well-meaning husband - how would we know what he means, since he says almost nothing? Is this how Beckett intended it to sound? I'm not sure. Perhaps this is a better play in this performance than the play Beckett imagined he was writing.

The set is fine. It is really strange to put this play, which seems to invite performance in a tiny black pit of a theatre, on in such a vast space, with such a vast stage. The stage looks like a bad bit of Beirut after the civil war - a jumble of earth mounds and shattered reinforced concrete, but there's a backdrop which portrays a more romantic landscape, perhaps somewhere in the American West before they paved paradise and put in a parking lot. And there are our two protagonists, or at least various bits of them - Shaw performing full tilt, partly presumably to impress the press, but also, one can't help but think, because she absolutely knows she understands this role and exactly how to play it.

So it's funny, it's sad, it's strangely hopeful. It's all the best parts of our own lives as well as the worst. It's supposed to be about death and extinction (I note that Beckett uses the word "skull" in the stage directions when referring to what you and I would call Willie's head), but actually it's about late middle age (Winnie, the playscript tell us, is 50), the stuttering of hope, and a desperate effort to make the best of things ("courage in adversity" is Alison's phrase for it).

And in Shaw's performance what one admires in part is just how successful Winnie is at making the best of things: at keeping her routines which structure her life, at remembering that her husband once loved her, at putting the best interpretation on his present absence. She places herself firmly in ordinary daily life by humming the theme tune of the Archers while (at the very beginning of the play) she cleans her teeth - there is no humming in the script.

And one of the finest moments is at the very end when Winnie sings her song, the song she tells us has to bubble up from within, as if it has to be spontaneous and authentic. By a brilliant bit of sound engineering, Winnie's singing is made to sound like an old 78 playing, as if the immediate and authentic is indistinguishable from a childhood memory, not a direct experience but a recapitulation. (The stage direction contains the word "musical-box" - but this is something better than that.) Of course the point is very Beckettian - goodbye authenticity, hello repetition, hello irony. But the song is not less moving because it is all too close to the sound of a recording; it is all the more freighted with meaning. Goodbye authenticity, hello overdetermination, hello Proust.

And then there was another magic moment: for this is the end of the play, and I found myself cross. I wasn't ready for it. I wanted (unthinkable when a captive spectator at the performance of a Beckett play), I actually wanted more!

Beckett brings out the worst in everyone. The Independent for 23rd January included what appeared to be a review of the play, but what was in fact only a review of the mound in which Winnie is buried, written by someone who had not seen the play, but had talked to the mound's designer. A complete load of twaddle. Nevertheless it is a perfectly good mound (in some lights it even sparkles), and even deserves the round of applause Shaw invites for it at the end of the performance. But it is Shaw herself who catches the eye: she emerges from her mound elegantly dressed, teetering on the rubble in high heels. We are reminded forcefully that Winnie sees herself as smart, attractive, and sexy, not as some miserable and inadequate person who has succumbed to despair.

So Warner and Shaw have brought out absolutely the best in Beckett. Go and see it - it's funny, moving, and absolutely wonderful. And it will make you realise that you, just like Winnie, are fortunate enough to have happy days - or you have been, "After all. So far."

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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