When it comes to Beckett, Andrew is more up on Sister Wendy than Samuel. So being aware that Henry Winkler has just finished playing Captain Hook at the New Wimbledon theatre Andrew made the natural assumption that the National Theatre’s production of Happy Days would be a stage adaptation of his childhood favourite 70s American sit-com.
Imagine his shock, then, when the West End Whingers, entered the cavernous Lyttleton auditorium last night. The stage had been stripped back to its bare walls, strange and loud noises emanated from a vast landscape of broken concrete and rubble and bright lights illuminated not only the set, but the audience too. And not a jukebox or college pennant in sight. Was this some kind of radical post-apocalypse reinvention of the Fonz?
But the impact was rather thrilling and – recovering from his shock – Andrew adapted to the situation and took advantage of the luminescence to have a good gander at the audience. For the record it was a full house comprised of quite senior people, students and the odd lesbian.
Famously (well to Phil anyway), Happy Days (the Beckett version) opens with its heroine Winnie (Fiona Shaw) buried up to her waist in earth. A bell rings, she talks a lot, she produces items from her handbag, and she puts up an umbrella to protect herself from the sun.
Occasionally she chats to her husband Willie (Tim Potter) who is only partially visible to Winnie and the audience. It all seemed to have significance, or does it ? According to the programme Beckett had “loathing of textual analysis” so WEW gratefully took this as permission not to think about it too much.
Friend and muse of Beckett, Billie Whitelaw is quoted in the notes as saying “Winnie is frightfully busy doing nothing…The play’s about getting through the day, and trying not to be too depressed.” Thanks Billie – that’ll do for us (a quick check on Wikipedia supports this analysis: “Broadly speaking, [Beckett’s middle period plays] deal with the subject of despair and the will to survive in spite of that despair, in the face of an uncomprehending and, indeed, incomprehensible world”).
Beckett was apparently notoriously precise about every nuance and pause. Since his death the Beckett estate have guarded his legacy keenly. So it was a pleasure and shock to hear the theme from sit-com Happy Days blaring out at the end of act one. Beckett estate take note.
Andrew took this as a sign that the Fonz might be popping up in act 2, so when the screen rose to reveal Winnie now buried up to her neck and not a quiff in sight, he resigned himself to having to listen to more words. Notably, quite a few members of the audience seem to have had their fill of words by this stage as the house was no longer full.
Anyway, feeling excused of the burden of intellectual thought, WEW are happy to report that Fiona Shaw makes this all as interesting as is possible in the circumstances. It must be a tough role to learn and perform and she manages to be both funny and moving when required. Deborah Warner’s direction is efficient. The set by Tom Pye is impressive (it has to be to fill a Lyttleton stage otherwise occupied only by the head of an actress), we stayed awake and we enjoyed reading the programme.
For the record: the play was written in 1960, first performed in this country by Brenda Bruce at the Royal Court in 1962 and opened the Lyttleton Theatre in 1976. Thirty one years later Happy Days are here again although the WEW jury is still out on which Happy Days made the greater contribution to 20th century culture.