Happy days are here again

Rory O’Connor discovers what Beckett would be like if he’d only used more words

Rory O’Connor discovers what Beckett would be like if he’d only used more words

Lots of us know Beckett’s famous words from The Unnameable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” This is tragicomic; but it’s also arrived at, accounted for. Whatever else he’s doing, the character that says this is definitely also thinking it. In Deborah Warner’s brilliant production of Beckett’s Happy Days, the central character, Winnie, played by Fiona Shaw, does as little thinking as possible. Instead we get a more domestic tragicomedy, one that we can recognise
as part of our own everyday happy days. The play’s strength is to see that our normal way of life is more like the inverse of Beckett’s famous formula: “I’ll go on! (I can’t go on.)”

Winnie goes about life with the hail-lady-well-met cheerfulness that normally suggests
something is a bit wrong: she is caught up to her hips in sand. Her husband Willie is thereabouts, but he pays more attention to the newspaper and to a girly photo — giving
rise to the most discomfiting and horribly
funny scene I’d be glad to see in a theatre
any time soon. Because of this Winnie instead chats away to herself, distracting herself from the gun she has in her possession.

Overall, you get an impression of what Beckett’s plays would have been like if he’d usually scattered a few more words about them. But of course, by the perverse economy
of Beckett, you would need to say more if nobody was there to listen.
Fiona Shaw got a standing ovation for her almost-monologue, but there was nothing
of a diva in her meaty performance. When she flashes a quick smile it unerringly suggests the intended pain, and a strict regimentation
of emotion. In a very innocent way she runs her hands quickly through her hair to suggest Winnie has glamour yet. And she smiles again. Then the smile fades and something older creeps through. The instant
aging in the face seems like something organic.

The violence is there in Beckett’s directions
and is nicely brought out in Warner’s production. Days began with a fire alarm of industrial strength. It made me jump, but then, I am jumpy. Stunning pyrotechnics bring an end to Winnie’s parasol, and her teeth are blackened in the second act, giving her an earnest unrelenting quality.

On the other hand, commendably unafraid
to do the silly thing, Warner plays “Happy Days” the song (“these happy days are yours and mine, happy days!”) at the end of the first act. This act of high camp and cheap “reference” gives the sad and moving
play dimension, and it ends on a happy chord, with Winnie and Willie singing “It’s true, it’s true / You love me so!”