Happy Days at the Young Vic

Posted on: 18 February 2014 by Laurence Green

Laurence Green finds Juliet Stevenson at her illuminating best in a revival of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days.

Juliet StevensonA vision of humanity struggling to withstand the terror and silence of solitude is how could describe Samuel Beckett’s plotless, ironically titled 1962 play Happy Days, revived in Natalie Abrahami’s new production at the Young Vic.

The protagonist in Winnie a middle-aged housewife buried up to her waist and then her neck in a mound of earth on a dramatic rocky escarpment, down which pebbles sometimes roll. She prattles away with a dogged optimism to her unresponsive and largely unseen husband and goes about her daily routine, unpicking her bag of items one by one – toothbrush, mirror, musical box and chillingly, a revolver. In her diminished world the sight of an ant is an event and as she relies on snatches of memory and half-recollected lines from verse, we realise she is heading for extinction in a state of painfully acquired self-knowledge. The significance of her plight and her behaviour are left to the audience to interpret.

The piece does not strike me as one of Beckett’s best works. It is wilfully obscure – an awkward blend of absurd humour, pathos and pessimism – and the lacks the enigmatic fascination of his trade mark play Waiting for Godot.

But Natalie Abrahami’s production has plenty of fresh ideas, not least avoiding any suggestion that Winnie is Irish-and certainly conveys Beckett’s picture of existential anguish, while Vicki Mortimer’s imaginatively constructed set is quite an eye opener.

What, however, distinguishes this revival is Juliet Stevenson’s excellent performance in the challenging role of Winnie following in the footsteps of Peggy Ashcroft and Fiona Shaw is no mean feat but she makes the part her own, bringing grace, determination and resilience as well as a stoic endurance of the nature of her plight. Indeed, she gives the character an empathy and humanity that I had not noticed before. She receives fine support from David Beames as her prosaic newspaper-reading husband Willie, who lives in some kind of hole to her right but, unlike Winnie, has the ability to move.

There is no denying the fact, though, that this is Juliet Stevenson who turns what could have been a frustrating evening in the theatre into an absorbing and illuminating one.

 

Happy Days

Runs at the Young Vic Theatre until Saturday 8 March 2014

Box office: 020 7922 2922

 

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