Review by Isabel Zakharova
Most of us are familiar with Samuel Beckett’s absurdist 1952 play Waiting for Godot. However, it is his lesser-known play Happy Days (1961) that has just taken the stage at the Old Fitz Theatre in Sydney. Much like Waiting for Godot, Happy Days presents us with a perplexing portrait of the human condition – at some moments it’s hilarious, and at others it’s utterly hopeless.
Produced by Redline Productions and directed by Craig Baldwin (The Aliens, John), Happy Days takes place amid a post-apocalyptic backdrop. Winnie (Belinda Giblin) is buried to the waist in a solidified mound of dirt and debris, while her largely silent husband Willie (Lex Marinos) crawls around her, offering the occasional grunt or mumble. With little to give her relief or diversion, Winnie takes comfort in her handbag full of everyday objects. Simple things like a toothbrush or a nail file provide Winnie with some sense of normality, as she reflects on her situation with comical optimism.
Because Willie rarely speaks, and spends most of his time hiding in a makeshift cave at the back of the stage, much of the play runs like a monologue. Winnie’s physical entrapment means that Belinda Giblin has the unique challenge of capturing the audience’s attention with her voice and facial expressions alone. And she does so beautifully. Her skill and versatility as a performer keep the audience intrigued from start to finish. Winnie’s unwavering cheerfulness and her simultaneous growing torment about her condition are effortlessly intertwined in Giblin’s portrayal. I came to understand that intricate production design and complex staging aren’t always necessary to hold our attention; sometimes, a strong, nuanced performance is all you truly need.
However, the set design (by Charles Davis) absolutely bears mentioning. Davis has created a space which feels at once realistic and otherworldly. Surrounding the dirt mound centre-piece is a cluster of discarded items: a broken plastic chair, old tennis rackets, bits of corrugated iron – remnants of normalcy. The strong visual of junk and urban decay contrasts with Winnie’s jolly tone and her constant chatter to fill the silence. Coupled with excellent use of a smoke machine, an eerie, immersive soundscape (Shareeka Helaluddin) and atmospheric lighting (Veronique Benett), Happy Days appeals to almost all the senses.
The intimate stage at the Old Fitz Theatre with seating for just 58 was the perfect choice for this play. Any larger, and there would be the danger of losing the feeling that we – the audience – were also trapped in this space with Winnie and Willie. Indeed, much of the strength of this production lies in the proximity between actor and audience, where we were close enough to observe the most subtle changes in Giblin’s facial expressions.
Happy Days is sure to be a popular production. It’s the kind which doesn’t offer easy answers or explanations, instead encouraging the audience to come up with their own interpretations. While the premise is perhaps depressing, humour is present all throughout the play. This means that audiences will leave the theatre not with a looming sense of dread, but rather with curiosity and thoughtfulness.