A really quick post, because I’m not really competent to write anything like a serious piece on a Beckett play.

Three bits I can say:

1. I can’t recall the last time a play made me want to do something so badly. First, mildly, when Winnie is trying to recall one of those immortal lines, and she can’t quite get it right, and I knew it and wanted to call out to her, to help out. Then, much more powerfully, in the second act, when Winnie is exploring which bits of her face she can still see, buried up to her neck in rubble, and she sticks her tongue out, noting that she can see the tip; and she puffs out her cheeks noting that she still can’t see them. I so wanted to stick my tongue out and puff out my cheeks. But the houselights were half-on, and I was afraid.

2. I’ve never seen an audience as disoriented as this one at the end of a play. Blackout: that’s easy. You start to applaud. But then the actors didn’t do anything: Juliet Stevenson just stayed stuck in the ground, didn’t even smile. David Beames remained lying on the slope, motionless. Blackout again. Keep clapping. Lights come on again. Keep clapping (can’t leave the actors stranded on stage, after all). Blackout again. But you can still see them there. Best keep clapping. Lights. Applause. Blackout. Applause. Lights. Applause. Blackout. Surely we can stop now? People seem to stop. I’ll stop. Applause ends. But the actors are still there. Now what? Can we just leave them there? People are getting up, slowly, uncertainly, and eventually, slowly, uncertainly, put on coats, begin shuffling out, looking a bit sheepish, presumably feeling watched by Stevenson’s unsmiling, unmoving face. Quite remarkable.

3. (These are getting longer as I go….) Interpretation: is this a play about freedom? I think it’s a play about freedom. Winnie buried up to her waist in Act I is clearly unfree in all sorts of ways, the physical confinement only one of them. But when the lights come up in Act II and she’s buried up to her chin, the limited freedom of Act I suddenly begins to feel like the real thing — at least to me. Watching Stevenson making the best of her situation in Act II, I thought back almost nostalgically to seeing her move her arms and shoulders earlier, redefining that prior moment, in my head, not as imprisonment, but as relative freedom. And Winnie herself does the same thing in Act II, reimagining limitations as abilities: she may not see much, but she can see the tip of her tongue. And a touch of eyebrow, perhaps. And she does still have the classics to keep her going, sort of. And she can still sing her song, for now. Which is to say that this figure has already learned the lesson Auden calls on the poet to teach in his Yeats elegy: “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” Except she’s not a man, so perhaps she doesn’t need a poet to teach her that — which, apparently, was partly Beckett’s point (as he said to the actor Brenda Bruce, “And I thought: who would cope with that and go down singing? Only a woman”).

In any case, it struck me that the play seems to be about the illusion of freedom; how much freedom is contextual; how much it’s never real, always a nostalgic memory, and always an imaginative response to a situation of total constraint. And the play doesn’t just show us this, in Winnie. It also makes us — or at least me — perform the same mental operation that turn imprisonment into freedom, by letting Act I appear as a scene of relative liberty once Act II arrives. And then, at least in this production, demonstrates to the audience (or at least this audience) that we’re not much more free than Winnie: we can’t even get up and leave a theatre very easily.


One Response to Happy Days (Beckett/Natalie Abrahami), Young Vic, Feb 2014

  1. alex.i says:

    When I read your ‘review’, I realized that there is not much to say here about the production/staging of this play and I wondered if Beckett’s plays did not become just a safe bet within the Anglo-American theatre (with the great help of the infamous Beckett estate)? You take any play by Beckett, stage it according to stage directions and in the most literal sense, get together a bunch of decent and competent actors, make sure you have the technical capabilities, and you have a winning formula (sold out most of the times just because it’s Beckett). I am trying to remember when was the last time I read about a bad production of a Beckett play and nothing comes into my mind. Yes, Beckett’s plays are extraordinary and challenging in their own way, but sometimes I think we see the same version staged over and over again, with small changes as a result of casting different actors. I would be very interested to see a German production of a Beckett play (let’s say Waiting for Godot). And I think Gorki or Deutsche Theatre have scheduled a premiere somewhere at the beginning of this summer.

Leave a Reply