Company B presents a Malthouse Melbourne production HAPPY DAYS by Samuel Beckett at the Belvoir St Theatre.
Samuel Beckett was born in Ireland in 1906. He subsequently lived through the terrible events of the 20th Century: the Irish “problems”, World War I, the boom years of the post war “Roaring Twenties”, the Great Depression, World War II and as a consequence of living in Paris, experiencing the Nazi German invasion, (Beckett said he “preferred France at war to Ireland in peace”), fighting in the French Resistance until forced to return to Ireland. He returned to France in 1947 and lived through the volatility of the European recovery and politics with the growing threat of Nuclear weapons and possible war and world holocaust. Living into the ’fifties Beckett (he died in 1989) wrote prolifically then: three novels and what some people regard as his greatest plays EN ATTENDANT GODOT or WAITING FOR GODOT (1953), ENDGAME (1957), KRAPP’S LAST TAPE (1958) and HAPPY DAYS (1960). The sense of a post nuclear holocaust future hangs over these plays. The nihilism of these plays was manifested necessarily through the given circumstances of the world environment he lived through.
In HAPPY DAYS, “the last of this quartet, Winnie (Julie Forsyth), a buxom blonde of about fifty’ awoken by a bell, lives her life buried up to her breasts, (in this production up to her waist),” chatting gaily… pulling objects from her handbag, including a revolver, brushes her teeth and hair,” takes medicine and converses with her husband, Willie (Peter Carroll), who reads items from an old newspaper and stares at pornographic postcards. Later, when she is awoken again by a bell, she is buried up to her neck, unable to even move her head, but still continues her chatter and is delighted when Willie suddenly appears, ‘dressed to kill’ in morning coat and top hat. He gropes towards her (and the revolver). In the final moments, the bell rings again and they stare at each other as the light fades.
In the Oxford Dictionary of Plays (Edited by Michael Patterson, 2005) while talking of WAITING FOR GODOT, (1953) it says "What made WAITING FOR GODOT the supreme classic is its blend of humour and tragic insight, its uncompromising minimalism, its perfect structure, and its dazzling poetic prose". ENDGAME (1957) followed : "Beckett (succeeded) in creating a beautifully written, tense drama in which almost nothing happens, a drama that offers a relentlessly bleak image of the end of humanity. At least in WAITING FOR GODOT there was some hope of redemption, even if illusory. Here there was none." (KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, “uncharacteristically explores the personal value of love for a person in contrast to the determination to be a writer and deals with a “little” picture rather than the greater existential world view of the previous two plays – a rueful comment on his own troubled relationships with women). With HAPPY DAYS (1960) he returns to the bigger issues and “the difference is that, while Hamm and Clov (ENDGAME) suffer from their awareness of the end of human civilization, Winnie remains buoyantly optimistic about her dreadful existence, which makes the play both funnier and more poignant.” Happy days, happy days, oh, happy days is a repeated mantra throughout the play. No matter the limitations of the life one leads there is the recognition, perhaps, that we live in happy days.
It is interesting to read the program notes of the artists: Director, Michael Kantor: “The task has been to scratch and beaver away until the luminous simplicity of Beckett’s masterpiece shines through”. Lighting Designer, Paul Jackson: “This endless light is perverse and punitive – eternity imagined as endless exposure, timelessness the antithesis of peaceful repose”. Set and Costume Designer, Anna Cordingley: "The first note on the first page of HAPPY DAYS is ‘Expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound’. In supplementary texts Beckett specifies an acridity; a barrenness with the ‘starkest simplicity’". Simplicity. Endless light, endless exposure. Barrenness.
And, yet, the Set and Costume design we meet on the exposed stage is of a sky blue rouched circular curtain, that unfurls to reveal a bonfire, blackened triangular pile of what looks like broken wooden planks and other useless and discarded charred objects, sitting on a base of coal coloured pellets. Above, from which the curtain track is hung, a discoloured amber pattern of deco abstract designs as if in a cinema, glows. The costume design for Winnie has photographic references to Susan Hayward and Myna Loy (amongst three), and is in actuality, a pink evening gown of some sophistication, plunging from the shoulders in a V-neck cut to the décolletage of Winnie’s breasts. On her dressed hair a tiny pin - pill shaped hat, surmounted by a feather ‘fascinator’, sits. A necklace around her neck. Of Willie’s look, the references are of Maurice Chevalier and Fred Astaire (amongst three) in dress tails, in reality, here, not the traditional elegant black but rather a powder pink-white outfit – music hall parody(?) accompanied by a parody of a moustache that sits on the upper lip. The lighting has a ceiling above the "bonfire", a pattern of theatrical multi-bulbed design. There are many changing and shadowed and bright states throughout the performance – giving a sense of movement- with an intensity of brightness, occasionally, above Winnie. There is also a complicated soundtrack of old musical theatre (vaudeville) tunes (“Leaning on the Lamp post…” etc… in the pre-show and interval, that moves to a finale of Doris Day crooning Que sera sera as we exit.) balanced by explosions, bells, and sirens of alarm. A background of ominous hum-rumble supports the scenario throughout.. (Sound Designer, Russell Goldsmith.) The actors are also, (sadly,) miked. The humanity of the naked voice, the experience of exposure to fragile humanity being a key to this play, undermined through the more technical and mechanical assistance. All of the design choices were puzzling and, for me, such a distraction from the bluntness and confrontational bareness of the original that it felt like extraneous frou-frou. Distracting from the minimalist intensity of the vision of Beckett. Almost as if the play needed colour and movement of the senses to be palatable. The playwrights intentions not trusted, even obfuscated.
Julie Forsythe gives a marvellous performance under restraining choices. The high vocal register that Ms Forsythe’s Winnie works in, limits the range of expression and lacks power and is rather that of a kewpie doll boop de boop “it” girl quality. On a number of occasions there are phrases and sentences that come down into a centred and warmer sound and suddenly real presence radiates and a focus of substance is gripped by the audience. Sydney theatre audiences have not seen Ms Forsythe as often as we would like, but even within that limited exposure there is an affectionate rapport (almost legendary) for her, always ready to embrace her offers and gifts. We still do, here in HAPPY DAYS, but in limited gratification. Here, it is the deep charisma of the inner life of the actor that enchants us, but in my reaction to the performance on the night that I attended, the depth of the humanity has been undermined with the technical choice of the range of vocal expression chosen and the distancing micro-phoned sound of the human voice. The deeper notes that come to us fleetingly are frustrating intimations of the possibility of another dimension of this Winnie. The appearances of Willie are mostly an idea of the symbol or metaphor of the figure Beckett has written. More idea than flesh and blood.
My first experience of Beckett was as a University student when in 1965 I was cast as Pozzo in WAITING FOR GODOT. (Weren’t, in reflection, we modern?) I had no idea, we had no idea what we were doing or what the play was about but it was a buzz to do. Forty years on we are not puzzled anymore. Knowledge and time has helped to comprehend the ambitions of the plays. The style, the form, the content is familiar. So, forty four years later I have to confess that I find Samuel Beckett’s work interesting theatrical literature but boring theatre. I know for some, this is a declaration of a high philistine order, but in my general experience of the canon of this author in the theatre, it is the ideas that fascinate rather than the performances I have seen.
It probably requires an order of acting style that I have rarely found when watching them. As Maryanne Lynch , the production dramaturg, mentions “there are 150 pauses in Samuel Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS.” It is followed by a quote from Fiona Shaw who created Winnie for the National Theatre, the pauses: “each has no meaning unless it is filled with imagination, tension or thought.’’ It is the force of the unspoken action of the pause, as much as the spoken words, that needs to be balanced with intensity of “imagination”, “thought”, and importantly “tension” in the writer’s work (crucial to Chekhov, O’Neill, Albee, Pinter, Mamet, Shepard and many others). I believe that the pauses need to be held dangerously long to permit the audience to deal with them and then be involved in the creative act of endowing the space of the time with our own personal imaginative thoughts, held in the tension of our own breathing life force, so that we have a shared catharsis with the character/actor in the moment. We become subjectively active in the pause. It demands daring and patience on the part of the actor and director– a passion to engage an audience and ravenously challenge them to participate with the imaginary forces of the thought pause, and risk failing gloriously. Last night I was not invited in enough. Pauses seemed rushed. Admittedly, we were, indeed, a tough house. Only a third or less of the auditorium filled (less after the interval) and the emptiness of the space may have hindered our unconscious compliance to respond actively to the actors. Maybe, the actors were unconsciously impatient with us and hurried?????
My best experience of Beckett was Ralph Fiennes’ performance of FIRST LOVE at the Sydney Festival a few years ago. In memory, it had a stillness and a technical accuracy and élan, a coiled tension, that introduced me, in the pauses, to the depths of the world of the character in the language that was both spoken and, daringly, unspoken - the emotional abysses of the space of a shared breath and vision of the world.
Julie Forsythe was terrific and I am glad to have caught the performance but my Beckettian prejudice has not been moved. Literature not performance art, yet, for me. And, last night, while outside in the big civilized world attempts to deal with “climate disaster and capitalism’s teetering” in Copenhagen staggered on, the creeping image of Winnie being buried or drowned by the rising tide of the charcoaled coloured design was indeed resonant and sobering. (Note the story of Climate Challenge confronting Tuvalu and the other Pacific nations is on page 10 of the Sydney Morning Herald. Page 10 today, Friday 11th December.) Timely work. Not nuclear threat any more, but still man made. Happy days. Indeed. Happy days, oh, happy days.
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