Sunday 22 November 2009

On Happy Days @ Belvoir Street Theatre

"Another heavenly day" pronounces Winnie at the beginning of Samuel Beckett's 'Happy Days', dressed to the nines in peach chiffon and buried to her waist in rubble. The statement will always draw laughter from an audience, its absurdity is self-evident, and yet as the play continues that mood changes and the perfect internal logic of that statement becomes might bring the self same people to tears. It is in this that 'Happy Days' is a long way away from the theatre of simple glib paradox.

'Company B' regularly do Beckett proud, he suits a house style that at its best is humane and theatrical. This production directed by Michael Kantor is no exception. It is formed around a brilliantly rhythmic, sympathetic performance by Julie Forsyth whose control is magnetic. Here she is buried in a mound of black rubble that, mercifully implicitly, must remind us of Ground Zero all jagged planes like a crashed stealth bomber. The mound is like an accretion of culture. Together with Willie's Edwardian outfit, the music hall ditties and Winnie's fraying reminiscences it is the weight of the past that gradually engulfs the characters. It doesn't so much set the play in a post-apocalyptic wasteland as in a continuous stream of history. The mound is our world.

For the starkly classical theatricality of his plays Beckett is an intensely Irish writer, in English or French. He came from a culture steeped in the subversion of the English language and the repetitions of the Latin mass. There is both resistance and magic in words and Winnie uses them here to give shape and meaning to life and to defy the harsh monotony of this broken universe. For Beckett words are proof of life, and they are for Winnie too. She talks to or at her similarly buried husband, Peter Carroll as Winnie, their occasional conversations are independent non-sequitirs, but the effort of speech and the hope of its reception are enough. For Winnie speech is heartbeat necessary, even when her repetitions seem more like instinct than conscious thought.

There is a third character in Happy Days, 'Brownie' a service revolver that has an unspeakably brutal and terrifying presence. The gun is the temptation to end it all, not to persevere. It is the snake in the garden where Winnie and Willie, at the end of the world, are Adam and Eve at the beginning. It is the great dramatic engine of the play as we anticipate what Winni might do with that pistol, the crux of the play. We must overcome, our humanity insists that we give life meaning and that we at least attempt to share that with someone else. This is what makes 'Happy Days' so optimistic, and like life so gruellingly joyous.

It is difficult for me to withhold praise from play or production. I love the fact that the best piece of theatre I have seen this year, by a long and winding way, is by the most serious and intellectual of authors. It demonstrates the compassion of ideas and the tenderness of thought. Beckett, with help from Forsyth, Carroll and Kantor in this relatively short two-hander, makes most modern theatre appear stupid and redundant by compressing so much empathy, contemplation and razor logic into such a dense and jewel like mass. More than week hence and I'm still moved.

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