Winnie is up to her waist, again. Juliet Stevenson is back at the Young Vic reprising her role in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The landscape is rockier than in Beckett’s own TV film of the play, when Billie Whitelaw played the indomitable Winnie. Here, the set is formed from great slabs of sedimentary rock, sweeping down towards the audience to cover the vast apron stage. A cliff face stands behind Winnie, and her bright, brave chatter is interrupted by mini-landslides that warn of her ultimate fate. Winnie will end the play up to her neck.
Isn’t it kind of odd that melancholic old Samuel Beckett is so well-loved? But the appeal is obvious: every single one of his characters is brave and undefeated. Beckett never really does anything other than indomitability. His plays are period pieces from a poverty-stricken, defeated Europe that, for all our present-day talk of austerity, we can no longer imagine – even those who lived through it. In 1950s France, ideas mattered more than today, and the ideas were stark and melancholic: existentialism, absurdism, minimalism. All the ‘isms’ disappear in this version of Happy Days which is too big to be weighed down by these weary, war-torn philosophies.
Not everyone likes Beckett, though. In his memoirs, Experience, Martin Amis claims that he once so riled Salman Rushdie by taking the piss out of Beckett, that Rushdie offered him outside for a fight (“I really do hate Beckett’s prose: every sentence is an assault on my ear”). If we strip away the language that Amis so hated, we are left with nothing but the idea that life is a massively brutal joke which humans, somehow, tough-out and survive. Actually, Beckett does the stripping for us. In later plays, like Not I, the indomitableness is all that is left: there is no part to play any more, just an extraordinary physical feat of endurance.
I saw Juliet Stevenson’s performance as Winnie during the first run. I’m guessing it has not undergone major revision. It has the same poster, with Juliet Stevenson sealed inside a beach ball.
The beach ball underlines what is implicit in the set: this version of Happy Days takes place at the seaside. Director Natalie Abrahami began her professional career with a pair of Beckett plays, Not I and Play. She brings clarity and logic to Happy Days: the problem is, it’s the wrong kind of wrong. Instead of a non-specific sandy wasteland, Abrahami gives us a beach-side cliff. Instead of an inexplicable catastrophe that buries Winnie, we get an ordinary landslide. (The landslide seems to be caused by the bell that punctuates Winnie’s day, which has mutated into a savage klaxon, a physical force that shake and shapes the landscape.) Everything begins to make sense, simply by applying the kind of questions that directors always apply to plays (‘Where are they?’ ‘How did they get there?’ ‘What do they want?’). Beckett is brought into the canon, and away from the strange blip in time of 1950’s Paris.
These familiar directorial questions do not work with Beckett, however. More than any other writer, there is nothing outside of his texts. Ask too many questions, and the interrogation destroys the hermetic absurdity of his work.
Beckett was a minimalist, but Abrahami has given us Happy Days Maximus. Today, we think of minimalism in design terms, like the bling-y sleekness of an Apple iPhone. But in the 1950s, the minimalism of Beckett and his set designer Alberto Giacometti was shonky, sketchy, scratchy. It reflected a sparse European wasteland that had been stripped to its bones with no explanation. Big it up, and something is lost.
Rating: Three Stars