HAPPY DAYS Young Vic SE1

BURIED BUT BRILLIANT:  JULIET STEVENSON BRAVES  BECKETT

“One does not appear to be asking a great deal”  says Winnie of her husband Willie, who is mostly invisible behind a rock, grunting monosyllables.  Indeed she is not demanding.  Buried to the waist beneath a great ragged rock under hot  sun,  she has only arms,voice, and a black shopping-bag with toothbrush, mirror, a crushed blue hat, and a gun just in case.   “Can’t complain…another happy day”.

Samuel Beckett’s nightmare vision was encapsulated in his remark about “the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody…sinking into the ground alive..no shade, nothing…all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life. And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing? Only a woman”.

We saw Beckett’s proclivity for trapping females and testing their resilience in the Royal Court’s trilogy last week,  where Lisa Dwan gave an extraordinary rendering of his shattered, jerky poetic prose.   Now an even more remarkable feat is Juliet Stevenson’s two-hour ordeal as the buried Winnie,  at first able to move her arms but later reduced to a tiny head hyperventilating as more gravel slides from overhead but able to dominate the vast auditorium,  an uncomplaining she-Lear surfing the waves of Beckettian despair with  laughter, screams and dry asides. Even the prone, crawling Willie (David Beames) emerges from his rock, but can  do nothing for her.

The legend has it that the playwright, newly married, was urged to write something happy for once.  Maybe this was the nearest he could get: a surreal vision (which Tynan thought an overstretched metaphor)  of a woman trapped, a man unresponsive and  the sands of time stifling both.   The first half  does have moments of humour exploited to the full by Stevenson – whose gift for emotional intensity has meant that her twinkling comic ability is too rarely demanded by producers. She is touching and straightforward in Winnie’s cheerful patting of her hair and appreciation of the day, her stoicism (“What I find so wonderful  is that never a day passes without some addition to one’s knowledge…”) , fragments of Catholic prayer and occasional spurts of frustration :  a cry of “Was I lovable once, Willy?”.   But there are sparks of comic marital naturalism which could come straight out of  the sitcom George and Mildred,  though pious Beckettians will not like me saying so.  And there’s a feminist frisson in the notion of wifehood as a state trapped by what lies below the waist (biology is destiny!) .  For in every gesture Stevenson’s Winnie is a  most profoundly, maternally, conciliatingly feminine creature.

So Natalie Abrahami’s  production is not as depressing as it might be, despite the terrifying second act and the fearful rumbling crashes devised by Tom Gibbons (is it an earthquake, a bomb, an avalanche, a King Kong roar?).  It is a nightmare diluted with absurdity, a fever’s inexpressible dread.  Beckett is brilliantly served by the Young Vic:  whether he entirely deserves it must be argued out between those who love him and those who never will.

box office  www.youngvic.org / 020 7922 2922   to 8 March

Rating:   four    4 Meece Rating

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