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Siobhán McSweeney as Winnie with the boater hatted husband Willie, played by Howard Teale, in his cave. Picture: Marcin Lewandowski.

Happy Days

Birmingham Rep


So, five stars. For the performance, as it should be. And for the splendidly bold Birmingham Rep audience: bar a very few rows at the back, they packed the theatre. For Samuel Beckett. One salutes their courage.

Not so much the play. Written in 1960-61, Happy Days was first seen in New York in autumn 1961 (Deborah Warner directed Fiona Shaw as Winnie there a decade ago), and in London in late 1962: a classic item for the repertoire of Sloane Square’s legendary Royal Court Theatre, whose plays also helped launch Beckett, Wesker, Pinter, Edward Bond and above all John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which occasioned the part-mocking, part applauding terms ‘Angry Young Men’ and ‘Kitchen Sink Drama’.    

Indeed with Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape (1957-8) Beckett was well on the way to becoming a cult figure. ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ (Ionesco, etc.) became a buzz phrase. He fitted that title perfectly. 

The Director of Happy Days’ UK premiere was the pioneering George Devine (with Vanessa Redgrave’s father Tony Richardson). Beckett (as with Godot, 1952-3) made a French translation. Even more importantly, it was staged in 1963 in Dublin, at a theatre located beneath the central bus station. Surely appropriate for avant-garde. Indeed, this dazzling new production started, most aptly, in Cork and then Dublin.

It had a bumpy first ride at The Royal Court - most critics, even the high priest of the up-to-date, Kenneth Tynan, didn’t much like the obscurity, the supposed allusions and implications, ‘cleverness’, insinuations, purported irony; and almost secret metaphors - or Beckett’s virtual obsession for obscurity as the guarantee of Modernism; even the general thrust (or non-thrust) of the play.

But James Joyce’s Dubliners immediately took it to their hearts. Indeed it soon became a best-seller, on a par with other Royal Court plays – Ionesco, Brecht, Sartre. The literature of Theatre is riddled, in the case of Happy Days, with refined interviews, admiration, definitions, eager or smart or scholastic explorations of the text. In 2019 The Independent adjudged it one of the 40 best plays of all time; which I suppose leaves out most of Shakespeare, Calderón, Ford, Marlowe, Marston, Congreve, Racine, Beaumarchais, Schiller, Chekhov, Anouilh, Arthur Miller, nec non et alios. It makes no difference even if they were thinking of just British or Irish playwrights. 


Winnie ponder the meaning of . . . well not a lot really. Picture: Pat Redmond

Happy Days isn’t exactly kitchen sink. We don’t get a glimpse of a kitchen, or indeed any normal environment. Time, though, to applaud not just the superb two-man acting tea, but the lighting and set. Jamie Vartan is easily one of the absolutely top Theatre Designers, not just in the UK but worldwide, today. Any my goodness it showed here.

Where on earth did he drop us? So brilliant an evocation of desert, somewhere-nowhere, was Vartan’s design: it evoked many miraculous places: the tawny brown rock of the central Sahara; South America’s Atacama Desert; Colorado, Arizona or Utah; Spain’s lifeless Extremadura. At a stretch, Derbyshire.

The main creation – a deeply concerting desert-like slope, and a massive rift or schism, evilly carved out of the rock - was quite staggering, possibly expensive to generate, but worth every penny. As the author stipulated, earth did indeed yield to sky – as blue and cloudless as you could imagine. The desolate, forsaken landmass (and the blue) projected outwards to the sides, as if mirrored. 

Just a glance at his images (www.jamievartan.com/projects) reveals not only a mastery of (often modern) theatre, as was magnificently the case here, but also his especial affinity with opera: Haydn as well as Mozart, Verdi, Strauss and Puccini, Cavall and even Catalani, plus the brilliant contemporary American composer Jake Heggie: every single one of Vartan’s visualisations shockingly original. And Paul Keogan’s beautifully conceived lighting could not have been bettered. Even in its modest role, Sinéad Diskin’s sound score was beautifully apt, too; even with the simplest of stayed chords, she sourced inspiration.

Happy Days is virtually a monologue, the whole 90 minutes spoken by the woman, ‘Winnie’ (Siobhán McSweeney), with a few grunts of assent from her beleaguered husband, ‘Willie’ (a very patient Howard Teale).

Knowing Beckett does mean some sexual innuendo, people have got very excited about Willie’s name, and one line late in Act One where he refers, only passingly, to a ‘castrated bull’.  Some of these discoveries in the text Beckett, who was not averse to a bit of self-promotion (or irony, or misleading, or teasing), doubtless encouraged from the outset. They don’t add up to very much.

In fact the whole script seems pretty meandering, and samey, if arbitrary. But one must make the main point first. Throughout the play Winnie is buried, one might say incarcerated were it not to seem her own choice – in the earth: a ‘shallow mound’. It perhaps need not necessarily be located in this desert-like situation, even though sun-baked is specified: it could in a way be thick layers of walnut-coloured dried brown mud, or a sewage pit, or a massive cowpat. She could be sticking out of an ill-painted wall or a kitchen sink. Indeed, could it not feature one of the Beckett’s dustbins out of Krapp’s Last Tape?.   

In Act I she is buried up to her waist; in the Second Act, up to her neck. We are meant to see this (it is) as a gradual enveloping. Or to realise (somehow) that this situation is inescapable - not that she in an imaginary Act 3 would be buried, choke and (at last) expire.

In fact both characters, Winnie and especially Willie, are driven to distraction by the awfulness of the other. Except that the seemingly innocent if distracted Willie, in his (here) rock ‘cave’) has learned to free himself by escapism – he does nothing, it seems, except read a vast Financial Times or hide in his hole. Even if he sheds his taciturn, morose character momentarily to utter, it is in a kind of strangled, submerged, tenuous, distant voice. Conversely her way of dealing with tedium is to talk and talk and talk. If she feels put upon, there’s no doubting who’s the real victim. 


Winnie finds herself up to her neck in it as Act II unfolds. Picture: Pat Redmond

Like the set, the performance, the production - Eamonn Fox of Dublin’s outstandingly creative and innovatory Landmark Productions (landmarkproductions.ie) - and perhaps Caitriona McLaughlin’s direction (difficult to puzzle out who decided what, but she is Artistic Director of the legendary Abbey Theatre, and you don’t get better than that) was absolutely superb. Beckett could not have asked for a cleverer, more apt presentation.  

Above all this was BAFTA award-winner Siobhán McSweeney, who delighted and enchanted, even mesmerised the huge audience with her unrelenting, bickering banter from start to end. It’s one hell of a performance, and the entrancing Irish accent somehow suited the role so well. A remarkable coincidence (think sink) is that one of her recent roles was in Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen.

Yet Beckett’s unrolling lines for Winnie left one not so much curious as – what they’re supposed to be: boring, humdrum, commonplace, unending, self-centred (despite her hushed husband being her victim: a bit like a fresh version of Lucky and Pozzo), and scatterbrained.

The wheel turns slowly: grotesquely repetitious, ordinary, trivial. As jejune as the landscape they are (literally) stuck in. There’s a stultifying sameness running through the whole of both acts.  This, clearly, is what Beckett aims to generate, and in this he is wholly successful. The three or four amazing silences (one besottingly frames the start of each act; or the bewitching stillness while Winnie stabs the air with her parasol) which Director McLaughlan devises are terrific; almost more meaningful than the text.


Howard Teale as Willie, now suited and booted and boater discarded, finally appears from his stony den. Picture: Marcin Lewandowski.

But as for all the other psychological equipage that has been associated with, or claimed for, the play, I found little or none of it. The atmosphere at the start is exactly the same as the middle and end. Monologues have a history, even in mid-20th century drama. I could cite Greek tragedy, but far better to compare Alan Bennett. What he achieved, three and two decades ago, with Patricia Routledge, Thora Hird, Eileen Atkins, seems to me cleverer, deeper, more sophisticated, more penetrating of shifts and conundrums of character, than any of “Happy Days“ (an only just believeable line Winnie quotes, enraptured, on an off during the play).   

Actually she rhapsodises pretty often, whether at the sheer fascination at her own words, or at the memories she is often invoking (she doesn’t in fact repeat, or muse upon, lines, or half-lines very much: “I used to think; I say I used to think” is an obvious one). “So much to be thankful for!“ “I close my eyes and I’m sitting on a beach again.” “That is what I find so wonderful!” “Things have a life.” “Oh, you are being a darling today” (no such thing). Her good cheer is punctuated by a tolling bell – very cathedral quality, Notre Dame or Chartres, Christchurch or St. Patrick’s, Dublin, which is supposed to interrupt her sleep, though she doesn’t seem to do much of that. The tolling order in the main runs backwards – easy symbolism there.   

Yes, there’s the odd Shakespeare allusion in the wash (“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun – the beauteous lament from Cymbeline). Actually one of the striking things is the way the set, and Winnie’s hair, has changed to silver in the second half. Golden youth and blonde brilliance has indeed yielded to more longsuffering resignation and age’s onward crawl.

However it is the very last sequence, where Willie does actually crawl, wormlike (top-hatted: the bizarrely brandished boater has been exchanged) into the open – the first time we see him properly - out of his stony den and makes his way as if to accept, or provide, an offered kiss, then ducks to avoid it, that is easily one of the most affecting. Freedom?

It made you feel the whole thing might have fared better if he had been more prominent, an even two-hander. Not least provided with a high class TV Drama actor like Howard Teale, with his Théâtre de Complicité launchpad and almost Marcel Marceau-like mobility. It felt like an opportunity missed. To 01-07-23.

Roderic Dunnett


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