It took 18 years for Happy Days to arrive in Britain. Unusually for Beckett, its premiere occurred in New York, in 1961 directed by Alan Schneider only arriving here in 1979 with its British premiere at the Royal Court starring the unforgettable Billie Whitelaw. For a long time thereafter, Whitelaw was considered the definitive Beckett interpreter and something of his `muse’.
Subsequently Winnie, the hopelessly optimistic housewife buried up to her waist and neck in sand was played by among others, Peggy Ashcroft, by Madeleine Renaud in France and by the great Irish actress, Rosaleen Linehan – to my mind the most encompassing of them all.
For all that Beckett lived in France for most of his adult life and wrote many of his plays originally in French, you can’t get away from the Irish-ness particularly in the rhythms of Happy Days. To hear them in the mouth of someone like Linehan is to catch a glimpse and get very close to the often shrouded cultural ties of its creator. To hear his authentic voice.
Yet Happy Days is intensely a stage poem open to universal appeal and resonance. Within the confines of its sandy restriction, Happy Days encompasses still a vision at once amiable, pitiable, comic and horrific about our shared human condition, about its frailties and abundant optimism.
Beckett, of course, employed the entombed vision on other occasions, notably in Endgame when his elderly relatives, Nell and Nagg are encased in dustbins. But Happy Days is the one that embodies resilience in the face of annihilating time with most exuberance and playfulness.
In a strange way, it is the one still most accessible to audiences for all its extraordinary surrealist and absurdist image. Beckett plays beautifully, as he does in Waiting for Godot with old jokes, puns, and on our failing physical form as Winnie starts her day and keeps herself going with the tiny, incremental rituals that enable all of us to deceive ourselves that `today is another happy day,’ whilst her mostly unseen husband, Willie, remains, mostly, silent.
Juliet Stevenson, now the latest incumbent to ride the Beckett roller coaster takes to it with relish. You can tell from the Young Vic’s hushed reverence that the piece still challenges on all kinds of levels. So little happens. Yet Stevenson, hands fluttering like butterflies succeeds magnificently in giving so little so much urgency and immediacy.
Certain vocal rhythms may be missing – this is a quintessentially English Winnie, in the style of Patricia Routledge’s Keeping Up Appearances heroine Hyacinth Bucket – but every moment betrays scrupulous observation making Beckett’s monumental theatrical metaphor very real, very funny, aggressive, frightened and brave. Apart from anything, Winnie must be a physical endurance test like no other for an actress required to be pinned within a sand dune, as she is, for two hours!
Beside her in Natalie Abrahami’s production, David Beames produces a wonderfully pitiful white moustachioed Willie. Handkerchief to head to ward off the beating sun, instructed kindly but firmly to `crawl back into your hole’, he becomes heartbreakingly present as a morning suited, top-hatted suitor painfully attempting and failing to scale the slope to reach his Winnie.
The epitome of marital faithfulness and impotence, Beames’ whole body conveys silent agony as Stevenson, now incarcerated up to her neck and backed by Vicki Mortimer’s towering rock face shows stolid resistance and unremitting joy. Another happy day! Another great production of a wonderful play.