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A CurtainUp Review
Happy Days

Happy Day with Fiona Shaw comes to BAM

Yes, something seems to have occurred, something has seemed to occur, and nothing has occurred. . .
— Winnie

Happy Days
Fiona Shaw as Winnie
Irish-born Fiona Shaw is one of the theater's outstanding actors. You need only watch her television portrayal of a feverish Hedda Gabler, or have had the good fortune to see her daring interpretation of the trapped heroine in Machinal, to know the extent of Shaw's talent. Even if you disagreed with the concept of Euripides' Medea as soccer mom, a production that came to BAM in 2002 and then went to Broadway, you had to acknowledge that Shaw brought forth both Medea's fury and deep-felt need.

So it is disappointing that Shaw's performance of Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, recently arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music via Washington, D.C., and the National Theatre of Great Britain in 2007, is not up to the caliber of her previous work.

Beckett wrote Happy Days from 1960 to 1961, supposedly in response to a friend's wife who asked him to write a cheery play for a change. It's anything but cheery. In Act I, he calls for Winnie to be buried up to her waist in a mound of dirt, and at the start of Act II, the dirt covers Winnie up to her chin. Through it all, Winnie keeps up a rambling conversation, mostly with herself, at other times directed at her husband, the monosyllabic Willie, who occasionally appears from behind the mound.

To give herself something to do—a routine of sorts amid the vast nothingness that surrounds her—Winnie takes sundry items out of a large pocketbook and puts them on the rim of the mound in front of her. Among the contents of the enormous bag is a gun--its purpose, one infers, to put Winnie out of her misery if necessary. In this inverted Eden that Beckett has imagined, the somewhat mobile Willie will conceivably be the last person on earth.

Not cheery at all.

According to interviews with Shaw and her long-time collaborator Deborah Warner, who directed Happy Days, the pair from the start felt frustrated by Beckett's writing—particularly his determinedly specific instructions about when the actor should raise her arms, move her head, turn it left or right or lower it. "All those stage directions," Shaw told Jason Zinoman of the New York Times, "it seems like linguistic fascism or something."

Within what they apparently saw as the limitations of Beckett's script, Shaw and Warner set out to create a faithful but unconventional production. Working with set designer Tom Pye, they conceived a post-apocalyptic landscape. The enormous stage at BAM's Harvey Theatre is filled with what looks like the debris of dead cities: concrete slabs fallen helter-skelter, covered with gravel and lit by blindingly white light. In the background, a projected image shows more of the same extending to the horizon.

Imprisoned within her circle of dirt, Shaw's Winnie nonetheless conveys the aura of a vivacious, once-glamorous upper-middle-class British wife, rather than the housewife portrayed by Ruth White in the original New York production (1961), or the tarty frau created by Billie Whitelaw in a 1979 Royal Court production staged by Beckett himself.

Both of Shaw's departures from tradition would be fine were it not for her and Warner's decision to play to the audience and play it for laughs. (During intermission, the theme music from the sitcom Happy Days entertains the crowd.)

Added to the oddity of Beckett's Happy Days as out and out comedy is Shaw's apparent decision to race through the words, unaware, it seems, that Winnie's stream of chatter, like her routine with the contents of her handbag, is a means of extending her life, if at all possible. Her Winnie's determined vivacity in Act I does, however, pay dividends in Act II., when the power of Beckett's physical, theatrical imagery takes over. Gone is the buoyant woman who brushed her teeth, put on lipstick, and tried to look attractive for her Willie. Now almost totally immobilized and slowly being swallowed up by the earth around her, Shaw's Winnie is a sad and sorrowing remnant of her former self.

Editor's Note: We include our London critic's somewhat different take on the production below.

Happy Days
Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Deborah Warner
Cast: Fiona Shaw (Winnie); Tim Potter (Willie)
Set Design: Tom Pye
Lighting Design: Jean Kalman
Sound Score: Mel Mercier
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Costume Consultant:: Luca Costigliolo
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. 1 intermission
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street 718-636-4100
Tickets: $25; $45; $65; $75.
Jan. 8, 9, 10-12, 15-19, 22-26, 29-31, Feb. 1 and 2 at 7:30 pm; Jan. 12, 19, 26, and Feb. 2 at 2 pm; Jan. 13, 20 and 27 at 3 pm; Preview Jan. 8; opened Jan. 9 Review by Alexis Greene based on Jan. 10 performance

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?
---- Winnie
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.

The  Playbill Broadway YearBook
The Playbill Broadway YearBook

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide


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