“Another heavenly day,” Winnie says spritely, as she is awoken by a booming claxon to her quotidian nightmare, laid out before us in this Young Vic production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Her lively spirit gives the impression that she would otherwise leap out of bed to face the coming day were it not for the fact that, for reasons left untold, she is buried up to her waist in sand, incarcerated under a scorching sun. With a truly sublime central performance from Juliet Stevenson, this is a horrifyingly captivating play about one woman’s stoicism in the face of a truly hellish reality.
Happy Days is by no means an easy ride. There is something incredibly disquieting about watching the absurdly chirpy and quintessentially British Winnie continually attempt to adjust and relativise her situation. Her prevailing air is one of amused resignation, drawing from “those unforgettable lines” of literature to help explain away the various ills which befall her. “I’ve seen enough, I suppose”, she gladly concedes upon the realisation that she is going blind, product of old age or simply the infernality of her situation. Though physically trapped, it seems that she is clinging on to the scant sense of autonomy and freedom she still retains through her memories and words; tools which are tragically also beginning to fail her.
She takes immeasurable comfort from the contents of her black handbag, which she spreads fastidiously out in front of her like an excitable child arranging the table at a tea party. Brushing her hair and applying lipstick, Winnie is maintaining appearances and keeping herself busy until the klaxon next sounds, announcing the time for sleep. Indeed, in spite of her almost complete immobility, Stevenson gives an incredibly physical performance, frantically occupying her hands and swaying back and forth in a balletic fashion, accompanying her unadulterated stream of consciousness.
Yet, there is an unsettling sense of desperation that garnishes all that Winne does and says – a creeping and unshakable awareness of the hopelessness that characterises her daily life. Interspersed amongst the self-persuasive discourse are chilling bouts of mania, a harrowing insight into Winnie’s abject terror. Her fiery-eyed screams struck me straight to my core, causing me to nervously shuffle in my seat on witnessing such a petrifying and torturous predicament.
Commonly referred to as the King Lear of female roles, Stevenson takes to the part flawlessly. It is a performance of such raw power, punctuated with comedy, as she continually berates her predominantly off-stage husband Willie (David Beames) and titillates with sexual innuendos. Stevenson’s sense of rhythmic control and pace is impressive, timing her almost uninterrupted monologue perfectly so as to fill every moment with an underlying tension.
Happy Days sees Beckett masterfully exploring the universal and desperate fear of not being heard or recognised, physically actualising it before our very eyes. Being far from simply an empty conduit for philosophical assertion, the play concerns an actual human being, interred by an arid wilderness and her own sense existential angst. It is a frightfully stark and magnificent piece, suggesting that hell is not just other people but also ourselves.
Happy Days is playing at the Young Vic until 21 March. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.