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A CurtainUp Review
Fiona Shaw's Winnie reviewed last year at the Lytellton theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London by Lizzie Loveridge
Did you find me loveable at one stage?Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner apply their combined talents to Samuel Becket's Happy Days about a woman who finds herself in deep rubble. Fiona Shaw plays Winnie, the housewife who is usually buried up to her waist in sand or earth but who, in this production, is seen in what looks like a post-Apocalyptic landscape. Concrete blocks are broken all around with those jagged, rusty wire re-enforcers protruding from the edge. It looks as though some city area in the middle of a desert has been through an earthquake. It is the scale of Tom Pye's set which is impressive as it stretches far into the distance. Jean Kalman's bright and dramatic lighting gives the impression of heat on this treeless and grassless landscape.
Despite the awfulness of her situation, Winnie prattles on about her determination to look on the bright side of life with small comments about how this is yet another happy day. With, presumably her husband, Willie, crawling around out of her line of sight, she gives us the minutiae of her daily existence and solicits him to take cover from the sun or to remember how to turn in the tunnels. Of course, the rocky constraints in which she finds herself are a physical metaphor for what Beckett would have seen as the social limitations of the daily life of women such as Winnie. She battles to keep up appearances using the contents of her capacious handbag. There is also the larger message, one that would have been particularly familiar to Beckett living in Paris in the middle of the twentieth century with existentialist writers like Camus and Sartre. What better way to show the inevitability of death, how we all come to nothing, dust to dust, than through the figure of Winnie whose drama is a living death.
In the second act she is up to her neck in sand, having lost her ability to clean her teeth or brush her hair or to raise the umbrella as a parasol against the heat of the sun. Her spirit is not yet broken but she is now decidedly up against it and it is harder to pretend with her blackened teeth. She is tortured by the ringing of bells which wake her and denied the small comforts we saw her busy herself with in the first act.
There is no doubt that Shaw is impressive in the role with her gentle Dublin lilt . She gives a very natural and believable performance of a woman in an absurdist situation. Dressed in a "little black frock" she looks elegant. She also shows variety while staying completely in character so that it is impossible to dislike her and the monologue never pales. I liked the way she moved her head like a little bird, small jerky movements on a continuous arc. Of course she cannot move very far so these jerky movements probably take enormous effort. There is that moment of meta theatre when she talks about a man asking, "What is the idea of someone stuck up to her titties in the sand?" There are moments too of light relief, for instance when she says, "My arms, my breasts, my Willie!" The theme from the American television sitcom, Happy Days plays as the audience leaves the auditorium at the interval.
In the second act many laugh at Winnie, but I always feel too uncomfortable to relax with laughter at Winnie's plight. "What is that unforgettable line?," she asks with no awareness of the humour in what she has said. Winnie is a doughty heroine, one who keeps her spirit despite the most fearful odds against her emerging from her prison. She tells Willie off for looking at disgusting pictures. Warner emphasises Willie's insensitivity with this episode when, as he looks at a naughty postcard, from his arm movements, we are left in no doubt that he is sexually relieving himself. This adds another dimension of course to Winnie's former function in relation to her husband.
It is interesting that Happy Days was written not in French as many of Beckett's dramas were, but in English. Of course it is in the tradition of his plays "where nothing happens." As Roger Michell recalls in the National's programme, Beckett would end the working day at the Royal Court with a wry smile and say, "That's it, now I must return to my room and resume my inspection of the empty space." Happy Days is ambiguous enough for us to still argue about what its theme is.