Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, is trapped in a pile of rubble in the middle of a desert that immobilises her from the waist down. Her husband is close by but inaccessible, spending most of his time uncommunicative or hidden away down a hole. Her waking and sleeping are ruled by bells and she is forced to use the distraction offered by the contents of her bag to get her through life, rationing her happiness out carefully, finding pleasure in the grinding repetition of each day and never allowing herself to face the reality of her hopeless situation. Maybe she is right. Perhaps if she continues to be thankful for the tiny pleasures of her life and see them as “great mercies” in “another happy day” her situation isn’t so hopeless after all. She is a compulsive and entertaining communicator, even given the most unpromising circumstances, and she talks constantly to her husband whether he responds or not, grateful for any tiny sign of attention. Nothing stops her relentless flow of words, even though there is little which actually needs to be said.
If Winnie’s situation reminds you of your own life then that would not be surprising, as it describes the lives of all of us. We may not literally be immobilised in a heap of rubble but all of us are managing to get through life in spite of our own shortcomings, limitations and difficulties. The human spirit is a great survivor and Happy Days is Samuel Beckett’s hymn to the fact that human beings are able to find the strength to carry on even in the most terrible circumstances, even in the face of certain death. Few writers have faced mortality head on the way that he does in his writing, and without the humour and pity for humanity that leavens his bleak vision his plays would be almost intolerable to watch. When Winnie’s situation worsens in the second half of the play and we find her up to her neck in rubble the play darkens. She can no longer reach the comforting contents of her bag and her attempts to remain positive become more desperate and more tragic. She may still be able to pretend, but we no longer can. The next thing in line to be covered and silenced by the encroaching pile of rocks will be her mouth and when that happens it will be the end.
There are not many actresses who could take on Winnie and her torrent of words and bring her to life. The part is a kind of word mountain which has to be climbed and each of those words has been placed so carefully by Beckett, every one relying on the last, that if you stumble the whole lot may come tumbling down. He has left nothing to chance. Pauline McLynn is inspired casting to play her and at the preview I saw everything was already in place. She has great humour, elegance of gesture, a wonderfully expressive face which allows us to see what Winnie is thinking, and a likable and deeply sympathetic stage presence. It is a delicately judged, fine performance and one day she will be able to look back on it and feel proud.
Happy Days is not just about Winnie, it is also the story of a relationship, and Winnie’s almost silent husband Willie is beautifully played by Peter Gowan. He has a strong physical presence, which is a great counter to Winnie’s delicacy, and the moment late in the play when he erupts from the earth to try to reach her having finally made the effort to dress in a tattered evening suit is unforgettable. We long for him to succeed, but at the same time it is horribly clear that he won’t. It is too little too late, and his strength runs out, leaving her alone.
This is a complex and difficult play for a fairly new director to take on. Jonathan Humphreys has done a good job, helped by the fact that he found exactly the right Winnie. The design, by Lizzie Clachan, is rather beautiful. Winnie’s mound is a pile of small grey rocks, sitting in the middle of a desert diorama in pale blue, grey and sandy brown, strewn with tumbleweed, a reminder of the beauty that Winnie can’t reach.
Go and see this if you can, it is a rare chance to see a first rate production of one of Beckett’s finest plays in a small space where you can relish every detail. I expected great things of it and I wasn’t disappointed.