What a waist: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at the Young Vic

Saturday 25th January 2014, evening (preview)

The story goes that Samuel Beckett wrote Happy Days partly in response to Margaret Cusack’s request that he write ‘a happy play’ after ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’.  History does not record her response to the play.  Having seen a grimly hilarious production of Krapp’s Last Tape many years ago starring John Hurt, we finally had the chance to make the comparison ourselves, with Juliet Stevenson taking on the part of the invisibly legged Winnie in a new revival of ‘Happy Days’ at the Young Vic.  To borrow a phrase from Woody Allen, we would have to admit that we prefer his earlier, funnier stuff.

We don’t usually start with the set, but in this case Vicki Mortimer’s extraordinary design defines everything else about this production.  She has the heroine positioned precariously just below a ravine in a starkly beautiful cliff face of folded rock, and it is very obvious how she could have been buried up to her waist, then neck, and the likely final outcome.  Both solid looking and ever-shifting with the tiny patter of falling shingle, this landscape is utterly convincing, and throws into relief all the unanswered questions in a play which is ultimately surreal and absurd.  Any trace of realism is soon undercut by the nerve-jangling claxon which begins and ends each day (our thanks to Tom Gibbons for that).  There is no plot to speak of – we are invited to witness a typical day with Winnie, a middle-aged housewife, immobile in the centre of the stage with only her top half visible, and her husband Willie, who appears to live in a hole just out of her sight.  We are not told how they got there, in fact Winnie speaks of history being wiped clean with every day, as if she never had legs, and all that is left is her daily rituals, centred around a parasol, a large beach bag, containing amongst other things a gun, and her endless talk, most of which goes unreciprocated by her brutish husband.

We can’t imagine anyone else embodying this part so perfectly.  Juliet Stevenson is among a very few actresses we would see in practically anything – with the lightest touch she has us enthralled in Winnie’s world.  She has a translucent quality which makes you see the thoughts and emotions beneath the cheerfulness with frightening clarity.  Her performance gives us the bizarre feeling of being pulled headlong into the play, whilst Beckett’s text firmly pushes us away again.

At fist glance, one might be tempted to label this play as misogynistic.  The sheer arbitrariness of putting a woman centre stage, unable to move, in a slow, chatty, tortuous eternity must surely say something about Beckett’s attitude to women.  But to be fair, his men don’t fair much better.  He is a misanthropist, and in that sense he gives his female characters (and brave actresses) an equal airing.  His fascination with humans is obvious, but the resulting dissection seems to kill the subject and ultimately fails to illuminate its humanity, leaving us reeling not just from the horrific scenario which is depicted but from the mind which thought it up.

To borrow a metaphor from Tom Stoppard in his play The Real Thing, the main character, a writer, describes the difference between a ‘good’ play and a ‘bad’ one.  The good play is like a finely crafted cricket bat – it may look like a piece of wood, but in fact it contains numerous pieces of wood which have been carefully constructed and pieced together to make a cricket ball travel.  The bad play, on the other hand, might look like a cricket bat, but is in fact just a lump of wood.  Happy Days is neither of these things.  The skilful construction is in plentiful supply – the multi-layered resonances, the poetic use of language and metaphor, the pacing, the symbolism.  But it is as if Beckett has deliberately put the handle at the wrong end.  After an evening of admiring fine writing, we found ourselves just longing to see a cricket ball hurtling towards the boundary.

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