Arguably Beckett’s most harrowing example of existentialist angst, Happy Days has been challenging audiences with its unflinching vision of an absurdist world since first being staged in 1961.
And the leading role of Winnie is one of the most demanding in the repertoire for an actress, partly because it consists of a fragmented extended monologue and partly because of the physical restrictions involved. Over the years there have been famous performances from the likes of Peggy Ashcroft and Billie Whitelaw, but here Fiona Shaw makes the character her own in a tour de force, by turns droll, gutsy and desperate.
Shaw is reunited with Deborah Warner, one of the great actor/director collaborations in recent British theatre, which includes Electra,Richard II, Hedda Gabler and Medea. It is fortunate that they’ve been able to put on Happy Days as the previous time they staged Beckett Footfalls in 1994 they had to abandon the production because the notoriously strict Beckett Estate objected to changes they had made to the dialogue and stage directions. Here, without, amending the text, they have still succeeded in creating a radical and fresh interpretation of the play.
In Tom Pye’s striking set design of a stone and concrete wasteland with tufts of dead grass, where Winnie is buried in earth up to her waist, we seem to be in a post-apocalyptic world, following a nuclear war or environmental disaster. The hint of global warming is underlined by Jean Kalman’s extraordinarily bright, unremitting lighting from which there is no escape: white light, white heat indeed. A back screen depicting green rolling hills and a blue sky is presumably a reminder of happier days, while a blank white screen descends at the end of each of the two acts.
Trapped in a meaningless existence where one day resembles all the others, divided only by alarms buzzing for waking and sleeping, Winnie does her best to get through the time when she is conscious by fabricating a detailed, repetitive routine and chatting aimlessly about trivia. She is also helped by two distractions. One is provided by a large handbag, from which she uses items such as lipstick, toothbrush, nail file, magnifying glass and parasol if all else fails, there is also a revolver.
The other, less reliable distraction is her husband Willie (Tim Potter), an unresponsive, laconic character usually hidden from view in a hole and seemingly only interested in reading a paper and masturbating with the aid of pornographic pictures. Winnie no longer expects him to reply or even listen to her, but she needs to know that he can actually hear her so that she is not speaking just to herself otherwise the sense of isolation would be unbearable.
After the interval, during which the title song of the 70s US sitcom Happy Days is ironically played (not actually part of the performance so presumably OK with the ever-watchful Beckett Estate), things get even worse yes, really. Now Winnie is buried up to her neck, and cannot even reach her handbag. When at the end Willie scrambles round to the front of Winnie and for the first time their eyes meet, you wonder if he is trying to help her or put them both out of their misery with the revolver now tantalisingly out of reach.
Fiona Shaw is a deeply impressive Winnie. Surely no one before has squeezed so much comedy however dark – out of her predicament in the first act. Her refusal to accept her hopeless situation is positively heroic, as she clings to any crumbs of comfort available. But we are always aware that she is putting a brave face on matters – behind the compulsive chatter and forced smile lurks despair. In the second act, with her teeth now blackened, and the smile turned to a grimace, her talking head becomes increasingly manic as she movingly continues to struggle against her predicament. This is the human condition stripped down to its bare essentials.