Riverside Studios, London – until 25 July 2021
Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is, as Lisa Dwan observes, often described as ‘the female Hamlet’. Dwan has played every other female Beckett lead but even she was intimidated by a role previously inhabited by Peggy Ashcroft, Brenda Bruce, Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stevenson, among others. It is understandable. Happy Days, first performed in 1961, is a mighty play, and 60 years later still unlike anything you’ve seen.
Famously buried up to her waist and then neck in the earth, Winnie determinedly makes the best of a situation that could hardly, conceivably, be any worse. Her husband, Willie, lives in a hole just out of her and our sight and is responsible, at least indirectly, for Winnie being trapped in the earth. The play, therefore, has almost no conventional movement and barely any dialogue, as Willie hardly speaks. All we have is Winnie, her bag of necessities, and her words.
Happy Days is a perfect piece of theatre because it defies all conventions about what is staged and why, panders to nobody, and is one of the most absorbing and significant plays every written. Beckett seamlessly merges satire, comedy and profound drama, often in the same sentence. Winnie relentlessly keeps up appearances, holding the wilderness at bay with her endless talk: “There is so little one can say, one says it all. All one can. And no truth in it anywhere.”
Her struggle is absurd, but also deeply admirable. Along the way she delivers a history of Western thought with partially remembered quotes from philosophers, notes the passersby who commented that someone should dig her out, tries to keep the bitterness out of her feelings about Willie, becomes more and more drawn to the loaded gun in her bag and, eventually, goes down singing.
Dwan may have a lot to contend of history to contend with, but her experience with Beckett means she is more than ready for the role. No one wants to take their eyes off her, as her brittle cheeriness and absorption in the domestic trivialities of the wilderness in the play’s first half becomes something even more terrifying. Dwan focuses her performance into hallucinatory scenes of childhood terror, where her howls seems to come straight from the abyss. She is utterly convincing, not easy when you spend the entire play in a logically impossible position. Yet we believe that she really is capable of ignoring her situation, and concentrating on what matters, at least to her. Trevor Nunn’s production allows her the freedom to make the role her own and she does, triumphantly.
The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith have a strong connection with Beckett, who directed there himself. It is a post-lockdown pleasure to finally visit their new space, which is finally complete after a long period of closure for a complete rebuild. Inevitably, it is now topped with riverside flats, but the theatre and cinema spaces seem well-designed and in the spirit of the old place. The theatre is a black box, absolutely right for the Riverside, but a big, modern one. It promises a new era of experimental theatre. If Happy Days is any indication of what’s to be staged here, this will be the place to come once again.