For its star, Happy Days is an undertaking in every sense of the word. Not only is the lead character buried to the waist and sinking, but she has an awful lot to say for herself. And whilst Beckett the director may have left us, his tyranny survives him in his writing.
Whilst not quite touching Not I for difficulty (nosebleed-hunters should head to the Duchess Theatre), Winnie’s monologue nonetheless contains over one-hundred and fifty scripted pauses that punctuate sentences as short as three words. Repetitious and free-associating, these create a tremendous sense of spontaneity but leave few hooks or cues for the performer.
For the most part Juliet Stevenson does an excellent job. Her performance is charged with nervous energy as Winnie battles to keep her darker thoughts at bay – particularly in the second act where a sober turn makes this urgent. Her portrayal is at once pathetic and heroic, scatter-brained and noble, despairing and blindly optimistic; Stevenson’s Winnie irritates and endears in equal measure. It is only unfortunate that she hits the ground running. Prior to the interval, the rush to get through those weighty pauses causes many of the jokes to fall flat, or even to escape the audience’s notice altogether. The problem is one of degree, but the tempo makes it tricky to get our ear-in during the opening minutes of the first act.
Once things settle down, however, the results are musical – not because of their rhythmical complexity, satisfying though this is, but because they are rendered so ephemeral. Winnie’s stories are gobbled-up by the insatiable silence. There’s a neat dramatic irony in this. Whilst Winnie’s barrage of language may seem to root her more firmly in her world, suggesting a relationship with and dominion over her surroundings, at the same it estranges her – positing her unequivocally on the outside. The meaning of what she says dwindles in the face of inflationary pressure. Similarly, the objects surrounding her – her bag of possessions and parasol – are profoundly dislocated in her desert home; their significance and history is a product of Winnie’s narrative alone and, as such, their work of signification becomes excessive, even perverse.
These items have a more modest function: they delineate her geographic and psychic territory, much as the empty rituals in which they serve demark her temporality. Winnie carves-out a little pocket of the abyss by breaking it down into digestible segments: she brushes her teeth and hair by rote; she preys, sings, and habitually checks her inventory. But her efforts only make the infinite loom larger.
This idea is stressed by Vicki Mortimer’s production design, which achieves high tension between stasis and movement. The rocky enclave that entombs Winnie has been surprised in transit – it advances glacially towards stage-front, a rising tide caught on Polaroid; an outcrop plunges from the circle balcony to provide a backdrop. All is in turbulent motion, but beyond sight and comprehension. The desert is indifferent to Winnie’s suffering and long to outlive her. Fitting as this approach may seem, it proves too ambitious for this space. Whereas Tom Pye was able to capitalise on a cavernous stage and auditorium when framing Fiona Shaw at the National in 2007, here there is less room for manoeuvre. The set is too bulky. Stevenson’s features are amplified rather than dwarfed, and Winnie’s resolve is thereby deepened at the expense of her helplessness.
Not that this Happy Days is lacking in menace. Winnie’s anxiety is well founded and infectious – there being plenty to relate to in the open-metaphor of impending loss. We can relate to her realisation that words can never give semblance to sensation of living. This is art’s conspicuous failure. But we can also relate to her need to try – to her need to strip-down and compartmentalise sensory information to form a meaningful internal narrative.
Indeed, in many ways the play invites us to do so by echoing the process of spectatorship – itself a model of how we cope with the sublimity of the world. For even in sleep the mind never quietens. It probes our perceptions and memories, asking questions, concocting explanations, and forming stories. These only cease to evolve when we are unable to tell them.