Sunday, 22 February 2015

'Happy Days' at The Young Vic

Chris took me to see 'Happy Days' at The Young Vic with Juliet Stevenson. A Samuel Beckett play isn't going to be a happy go lucky song and dance extravaganza so I reconciled myself to that early on. This is that rare beast, a play that went down so well it's been brought back a mere 7-8 months after it closed, with the same cast and production. That alone says it's probably worth seeing.

It's not a play I'm familiar with so it was intriguing and puzzling by turns. It's virtually a long monologue for a single actress with the odd minor interjection from a largely hidden man every now and then. And that actress is buried up to the waist in the first half and buried up to her neck in the second half. What's that about? It means, of course, that the actress is very limited in what she can do to project her character and move the story along, particularly when buried up to the neck!

The stage is set as a gravel pit with a wall of rock behind down which, every so often, gravel slips and slides. Above is a white on white canopy representing a blinding sky. And there, in her nice blue patterned frock is Juliet Stevenson buried up to her waist in the gravel. When you first come in that part of the stage is covered by a tent under which she gets into place and then it's removed and she just sits there as the audience comes in. That must be incredibly tiring to be stuck in place the whole time. At the half time the tent comes out to cover her again and when she's uncovered she's buried up to her neck. I hope she hasn't been there the whole time.

It's that 'why' moment that lasts so long (and still goes on to be honest). Why is she buried in a gravel pit and why doesn't she get out? Is she trapped? Has there been an accident? What's going on? Is it a metaphor for something or a symbol of the state of modern society? Has the world ended and these are the last survivors? It's never explained or commented on so we just have to accept that she's buried in a gravel pit and that's the way the world is. Equally odd is her (presumably) naked husband who's hidden behind a rocky outcrop and we see his sunburned red raw shoulders and head every now and then with a few grunts and phrases and then he goes quiet.

Winnie and Willie are husband and wife  and we learn from Winnie's never ending chatter that they've had a life outside the gravel pit but we don't learn how they end up there. Winnie wakes and says her prayers, brushes her teeth, worries that she can't read the small writing on her tooth brush and tells us of the contents of the black bag beside her. The black bag that reassures her in ways that Willie can't. Every now and then she reaches in to remove some item or other and, every so often, she picks up a revolver which she returns to the bag. And she doesn't stop talking and the phrase 'happy days' keeps cropping up as she remembers happier times.

The second half opens with Winnie buried up to her neck, looking haggard and with the revolver in the gravel in front of her. She still talks to Willie but she assumes he's either left or died since she never gets a reply. How long has she been there? She still talks in her clipped middle class accent and then Willie comes crawling out from behind the rocks, fully dressed in a morning suit and hat as if it was his wedding day and crawls slowly towards her. Is he really there or is this Winnie transposing the present and her wedding day?

We'll never know because that's when the lights go out and, when they come back on, Winnie is still buried and Willie is lying there on the gravel, both still. We clap and clap and they stay perfectly still, and then we leave and they're still there. That must be one punishing play to put on night after night and being always on display to the audience. All I can say is 'wow'. It' a marvellous performance by Juliet Stevenson, ably supported by David Beames.

We left the theatre a couple of days ago and I'm still puzzling over the play - what's it about? what's it for? what am I meant to think? That's the sign of good writing and a good production. It's made me think and ponder. I've still got no idea what it's about but can accept that it just is so that's good enough for now. Y'know what? I think I'd like to see it again.

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