Friday, July 10, 2015

Happy Days

In the first act of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, Winnie is buried up to her waist in a large mound of barren earth. In the second act, she is buried up to her neck. The mound of earth can be seen as life, or aging, or even just a mound of earth. No matter the interpretation, Winnie tries to make the best of it, carrying out her (limited) rituals, sharing her thoughts with a man we barely see whom she has clearly know for years (her husband? lover?), and being ever grateful when a day turns out to have a good moment or two. "Oh, this is a happy day," she says. She adds, "This will have been another happy day," as though to file it for the future when it will be a precious memory.

Brooke Adams
Photo: Joan Marcus
In the production currently at The Flea, directed by Andrei Belgrader and starring Brooke Adams and (her husband) Tony Shalhoub, Winnie chirps along, accentuating the positive and barely listening to her own words. Adams' performance is flat, with a largely monotonal presentation. She recites words rather than inhabiting them. (Full disclosure: the night I saw Happy Days, the audience gave Adams a standing ovation, so mine is clearly a minority opinion.)


The production as a whole doesn't listen to Beckett's words or else fails to examine the anguish behind them. It is a coarsened version of Happy Days, complete with masturbation and flying snot. Willie's reappearance at the end of act two is treated as slapstick rather than desperation. These decisions, while lessening the impact of the play, can be justified based on the text. Less justifiable is the moment when Winnie signals the audience to clap to try to entice Willie to sing. If Winnie is aware of the audience, than her isolation is considerably less isolated.

Billie Whitelaw
And completely unjustifiable is the final tableau, which is something of a happy ending. Winnie and Willie lock eyes and truly connect in a remarkably un-Beckettian moment. (Another full disclosure: this is ironically one of the fullest and most effective moments in the whole pallid production.)

[end of spoilers]

Curious as to just how many liberties Belgrader took with Beckett's play, I reread the text and carried out some research, but still had questions. So I posted a query on the often-helpful All That Chat. ATCer earlybird reminded me that YouTube has a version of Happy Days directed by Samuel Beckett himself. (Act one here; act two here.) Thank you, earlybird!

The Beckett-directed version, starring the astonishing Billie Whitelaw, is a must-see. In comparison, the production at the Flea is thin gruel indeed. Beckett's direction is spare and schtick-free. Whitelaw's Winnie is full-blooded and real. She feels and lives the minutes of Winnie's life as they slowly and grimly tick by, so her optimism becomes a form of heart-breaking bravery. And her quiet despair in the second act is devastating.

How odd that a live performance should feel so meager and distant, while a poor-quality video should burst with dimension and humanity.

(For a fascinating and heartbreaking look at many different Winnies--and piles of earth--click here.)

(press ticket, 4th row)

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