Review By Thomas Gregory
Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece has been given a uniquely Australian interpretation. While some Beckett purists might be disappointed, they would be in the small minority of people to walk out disappointed with this original take on a highly-prescriptive text.
Happy Days is typical Beckett - absurd without being too inaccessible, filled with intelligent humour that pleases you even if you don’t laugh too often, and presented on a deceptively simple stage. Winnie is stuck in a large mound of dirt in front of a backcloth Beckett describes as “a very pompier trompe-l’oeil [...] to represent unbroken plain and sky receding”. For around 100 minutes, Winnie lets the audience know how she survives her days while every so often checking on her husband, Willie. While Willie might be free to move about behind the mound, he appears to be psychologically trapped in his own world, unwanting or unable to engage with his wife.
When writing “Happy Days”, Beckett wanted to explore the idea that, if you set up a torture of a world you could not escape, under a beating sun, unable to sleep, with little to see you through life. “And I thought,” Beckett stated in one interview, ”who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”
In many ways, the original script is a celebration of the strength of a 20th-century housewife. While that is a clear indictment of the patriarchal society she has had to survive in, it is unknown how much of that was on Beckett’s mind when writing the play. However, this concept, this exploration of burden and just how strong a woman must be to take it on, is highlighted by the creative decisions made in the MTC production.
To direct a play like “Happy Days” must be torture unto itself. The director attempts to tell a new story with a script so prescriptive only offering you a snippet could get across the unique hell that Petra Kalive faced:
Willie—[examines tube, smile off]—running out—[looks for cap]—ah well—[finds cap]—can’t be helped—[screws on cap]—just one of those old things—[lays down tube]—another of those old things—[turns towards bag]—just can’t be cured—[rummages in bag]—cannot be cured—[brings out small mirror, turns back front]—ah yes—[inspects teeth in mirror]—poor dear Willie—[testing upper front teeth with thumb, indistinctly]—good Lord!—[pulling back upper lip to inspect gums, do]—good God!—[pulling back corner of mouth, mouth open, do]—ah well—[other corner, do]—no worse—[abandons inspection, normal speech]—no better, no worse—[lays down mirror]—no change—[wipes fingers on grass]—no pain—[looks for toothbrush]—hardly any—[takes up toothbrush]—great thing that—[examines handle of brush]—nothing like it—[examines handle, reads]—pure . . . what?—[pause]—what?—[lays down brush]
Somehow, Kalive takes a script so detailed as specific, and makes it their own. This is not the 2017 production with Fiona Shaw, and certainly not Beckett’s own take with Billie Whitelaw. The Luna Park facade of brightness, the veneer of relaxation, has been stripped away to leave an Antipodean horror as its remains. Taking advantage of Lucy’s recognisable stage personality and some of the best design work you will see this year, Kalive’s production is haunting, harsh, and unforgiving. This Winnie has been placed in hell, and the audience understands how strong that has made her.
Of course, it would be a lie to suggest that the majority of people going to see “Happy Days” are doing so curious about how Petra Kalive will breathe new life into a play over 60 years old. No, most will go, and perhaps most readers of this review are here, to find out if Australian comedian Judith Lucy can perform dramatic theatre.
The answer is yes.
Winnie is possibly one of the best characters Lucy could be given for her first theatrical role in decades. Most of her monologuing is directed at the audience in a presentational style that most comedians would feel at home working with. Lucy is sardonic, assertive, and ultimately powerful in her portrayal of the trapped housewife and is at her best when the only one in the spotlight. The comedian does struggle when the show calls for more representational acting, as the character forgets her audience for a moment or attempts to engage her reticent husband but powers through in much the same way her character might. She has not embarrassed herself.
It helps that this version of Winnie believes it is a happy day. They are not in denial but have chosen to be happy in their circumstance. They are tough, like Squeaker’s Mate. While she may rely on filing her nails or recalling past loves to get through her day, it is only after ensuring her self-imposed role of protector and spouse is fulfilled. This quintessentially Australian interpretation of the responsible woman who chooses to be happy even when things are shit isn’t too far removed from the character of Judith Lucy audiences are shown in any of her other performances on stage or screen. It is, in short, a great piece of casting.
While there is little any actor can do with the barely-a-character of Willie, Hayden Spencer does an admirable job with the little he is given to do. In those integral moments, he delivers perfectly-timed lines with just the right amount of care for what is being said. While it can be easy to overlook such supporting roles, Spencer’s experienced hand must have surely made life so much easier for Lucy in the rehearsal room and only serves to make her look better on stage.
The design for Happy Days is something altogether extraordinary. Beckett’s “mound of dirt” might, unfortunately, be a solidly-constructed set piece, but visually it cannot be mistaken for anything but the desert dunes of our outback. Likewise, the backdrop which Beckett intended to reflect those bright pantomime backgrounds, conjuring images of coney island photo opportunities, is instead a picture of Australian emptiness…rolling hills of dusty sand, and empty blue skys….with a hint that the ocean that stretches forever might just be on the other side. Throughout the entire play runs J. David Franzke’s sound-scape of identifiable insects, a forever-twilight of loneliness, punctuated by the most soul-scratching “bells” that interrupt an almost peaceful sadness with horror and confusion. For those who did not know otherwise, Happy Days would forever be known as “that Australian play of loneliness and strength”.
Happy Days will have no trouble selling itself, with its well-known star and a script by one of the twentieth century's greatest playwrights. For the potential audience member who is tempted to skip it, worried the MTC will rest on these two elements alone, I warn you not to make such a mistake. This may be the greatest Beckett production you will ever see in this country.