Happy Days

Clara Simpson as Winnie in The Corn Exchange production of 'Happy Days'. Photo: Johnny Savage

Clara Simpson as Winnie in The Corn Exchange production of 'Happy Days'. Photo: Johnny Savage

Up to her waist in crap, Winnie (Simpson) knows what it’s like to be us. Engulfed by earth, and separated from her beloved Willie (Bennett), Beckett’s protagonist refuses to give in to despair in the face of certain annihilation. “Begin your day… mustn’t complain,” she repeatedly affirms, swapping her pistol for lipstick.

That a company as playful as Corn Exchange would produce work as heavily protected as Beckett’s may come as a surprise to many. But some say there is freedom within his rules. While the group has been moving away from the Commedia dell’Arte style that once defined it – most recently with Freefall – in this production of Happy Days the form makes an appearance in the subtle highlighting of the contours of Winnie’s face, and Willie's when he eventually shows it.

Photo: Johnny SavageJoe Vanek’s brown stage slopes towards the audience, deeply textured with organic debris and the odd lost pipe. The earth effect recedes on stage left, exposing rows of wooden slats. Behind the neatly carved-out platform lies Willie, hidden for most of the performance. Winnie is perched on top of the feature, slumped at first, then suddenly upright and alert, like a vigilant meerkat. A rectangular panel hangs overhead – not quite the ‘pompier trompe d’oeil’ of Beckett’s prescription – and the set is flanked on either side by lateral lighting.

Winnie wears a dirty blue dress and a cream, pillbox hat. She is young, slender and lithe. Her face is lightly licked with expressionistic flourishes, although not in a way that allows one mood to dominate. While this makes for a predominantly warm, easy exchange, Winnie’s humanity is best brought into focus with the threat of hysteria, and this largely neutral tone tends to distance us from her situation. That Ryan doesn’t explore further the connection between the postured, high emotional states of Winnie and the Commedia form in which she excels is disappointing. There are moments where Simpson's expressions come close to conveying this intensity, but she moves on, leaving much of the character’s broad emotional spectrum untapped.

Given that most of her body is embedded in a mound of clay, Winnie has to rely heavily on her face and voice to communicate. While the production clearly isn’t striving to adopt a Commedia aesthetic, some of ‘the old style’, as it were, would have gone far in this respect. At one point, at least some of the audience catch a glimpse of Winnie’s face distorted by her magnifying glass, and while this is well-captured in the production stills hanging in the foyer and carried in the programme note, it’s not framed to hold everyone's attention in performance.

The need to modulate the tone more also arises with Simpson’s voice, which tends to be sibilant and sometimes shrill, rarely searching for resonance among the lower registers. That said, the performer speaks Beckett’s text with great clarity, finding plenty of humour in the banalities of Winnie’s world.

Photo: Richard GilliganThe hanging panel is lowered for the second act, which sees Winnie now buried up to her neck. Seemingly to signal the darker atmosphere, side-lighting is used to wash multiple hues across the stage, but the effect feels a bit disorganized and distracting, with no clear connection to a dramatic impulse. While Simpson’s performance feels more anchored in this part – her mounting anxiety finding good company in Clohessy’s timorous score – it’s not until the last moment when she enigmatically locks eyes with Willie, and captures an affecting kernel of Winnie’s character, that the role feels fully occupied. It’s arresting, but not appropriately anticipated.

Much of Beckett’s work hinges on some kind of abstracted disaster, and Happy Days is no exception. But destruction for Beckett is as ripe with potential as it is the end of the line. To get this message across, all affects must be affirmative at some level, and this demands careful fine-tuning. One imagines that Corn Exchange could really have mined the physical and visual power of Beckett’s text to assert an urgency for art and life in these times. But Ryan resists a strong intervention to give us something altogether more gentle and ambivalent that ultimately makes Winnie look a little more batty and delusional than courageous and defiant.

Fintan Walsh is Staff Writer at ITM.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

9 - 20 November, 2010

Produced by The Corn Exchange and The Théâtre National Populaire
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Annie Ryan

Lighting Design: Sinéad Wallace

Sound Design: Dennis Clohessy

Set and Costume Design: Joe Vanek

With: Clara Simpson and Andrew Bennett

A co-production between The Corn Exchange and The Théâtre National Populaire, Lyon