If you’re in the mood for outstanding acting, heavy-handed metaphor and staring at the same point of the set for 90% of the time, get yourself to the Young Vic for a new revival of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.
The metaphor and immobility come courtesy of Beckett’s direction to have the actress buried up to her waist during the first half, and up to her neck during the second. Kept company only by her monosyllabic, often absent, husband and an unseen force that tortures the pair with sirens to make sure they only sleep at certain times, Winnie is literally trapped in a barren and sunbaked landscape. But Winnie is determined to remain cheerful, even as she is fully aware how desperate her plight is. Her days are happy, she insists, unpacking small items like a comb and hand mirror from a bag; they are sometimes heavenly. Of course, they are not, and her incessant babble is partly to distract and partly to convince herself.
Such a role clearly calls for an exceptional actress, and Juliet Stevenson is mesmerising even when she only has her face and voice to connect with the audience. She is the very epitome of all those British attributes of ‘bearing up’ and ‘mustn’t grumble'; flashes of terror and despair tear out of her before being quickly and neatly packed away, like the objects she puts back in her bag.
Is the presentation of such a confined woman still relevant? Beckett describes his inspiration:
“I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree… there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life. And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”
Written in 1960-1, Happy Days came just before The Feminine Mystique and with a year to go until The Beatles put out their first 7″. We’ve only got to cast a look at Mad Men to see how such a claustrophobic, restricted life could accurately reflect the life of women in the 50s. And there still are women living in domestic fear and misery now. But more have the freedom to shout, to scream, to lash out at life’s unfairness in ways that Winnie would never dream of. Perhaps these days, the play’s main service is to remind those of us who are able to rock up to a London theatre and spend two hours watching a bravura performance just how much we have to be thankful for.
A word also on the incredible set. Designer Vicki Mortimer has produced a vast rock face that cascades into the theatre, pebbles skittering down to gradually bury Winnie further. It’s beautiful and daunting, a perfect backdrop.
Happy Days is on at the Young Vic, SE1, until 8 March. Tickets £10-£35. For more information and to book visit the Young Vic website. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.