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BWW Review: HAPPY DAYS, Riverside Studios


Samuel Beckett's bleakly comic and absurdist play is revived for its 60th anniversary

BWW Review: HAPPY DAYS, Riverside Studios

BWW Review: HAPPY DAYS, Riverside Studios 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of Samuel Beckett's challenging play Happy Days. Written in 1961, a fantastic new revival now comes to Riverside Studios. Deftly directed by Trevor Nunn, the play resonates more than ever and features a truly stunning performance from Lisa Dwan.

We meet Winnie asleep and buried, for no apparent reason, up to her waist in a mound of earth. Her devoted Willie (a childlike Simon Wolfe) is there behind her but not directly visible eye-to-eye until the very end. The start finds Winnie awakened by a loud bell and beginning to catalogue the items in her bag, almost as a stream of consciousness. She moves from reading words on her toothbrush to reflections on language. Act two sees Winnie buried even deeper, this time up to her next. She moves to memories of early sexual encounters and childhood trauma, as her age and immobility come into much sharper focus.

Winnie is a physically and mentally arduous role for any actor, who is of course immobilised throughout. Following in the footsteps of Billie Whitelaw, Fiona Shaw and Maxine Peake, amongst many others, Dwan is a natural for the role. A Beckett veteran, Dwan is familiar with this level of endurance, having mastered Beckett's incredibly challenging piece Not I in 2013, in addition to The Beckett Trilogy and many others.

Dwan finds something almost normal in Winnie's entrapment, expressing movement through her hands, neck and face. Her hands, especially, have an almost balletic quality in their shaping. She begins radiating positivity and snatches of joy despite the monotony of her situation.

A darker humanity is felt in the second half; you can feel Winnie's stark emotional exhaustion. She can only rely on her facial expressions here; she puts out her tongue to check it is still there, takes an inventory of her own face as tears pour down her cheeks. It is entrancing but also harrowing, the spectral-seeming character newly drained of the energy and vigour of the first act.

Dwan is accomplished at mastering Beckett's challenging syntax. She communicates the weaknesses in the reliability of memory, the failings of an ageing body. The lilting lyricism in her native Irish accent is hypnotic and captivating. The contrast in her voice in the second half is striking; weaker, more rasping, stuttering and scattered.

Director Trevor Nunn chooses to echo Billie Whitelaw's 1979 performance where Beckett played to her physical attractiveness. A more youthful Dwan is clothed in a similar strappy, lace black top and red lipstick. Her well-groomed hair becomes a matted, shaggy mass in the second half, her face deathly white and drawn.

Rob Jones' design feels vaguely dystopian, using golds, browns and earthy tones to reflect a barren landscape. The stunning set has a cinematic quality, using a wider, more panoramic view which is highly effective. Tim Mitchell's lighting and Johnny Edwards' sound design also come to the fore in the second half, as an eerie echo resonates from Winnie and a ghostly light illuminates her deathly face.

Winnie is trapped physically and mentally, conducting rituals to pass the time and remains stoic in the face of solitude and death. One feels, too, that Beckett could have written the play last week as a direct response to the pandemic. The isolation and monotony of loneliness, the inability to move about in the world and to experience anything new: these themes will resonate deeply with so many trying to make the time pass over the last fearful 15 months.

This is a wonderfully engaging and deeply disquieting version of one of Beckett at his most challenging. It's a glorious and compelling revival.

Happy Days is at Riverside Studios until 25 July

Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

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