Happy Days

Samuel Beckett
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Maxine Peake (Winnie) Credit: Johan Persson
David Crellin (Willie) Credit: Johan Persson
Maxine Peake (Winnie) Credit: Johan Persson

Never ones to avoid a challenge, director Sarah Frankcom and actor Maxine Peake once again come together at the Royal Exchange with Peake as Winnie and David Crellin as her largely silent husband Willie.

Like most of Beckett's work, it is rooted in post-war existentialism, emphasising the purposelessness of life and showing characters passing time between birth and death with trivial actions to which they attach significance, but also shows an influence of vaudeville or music hall comedy. Winnie's dialogue chains together bits of gossip, colloquial expressions, descriptions of her daily routines, reflections on her past life and quotes from Shakespeare, Milton and others stripped from their context and meaning—clearly a big influence on Pinter.

As with earlier plays such as Waiting For Godot and Endgame, the external situation is absurd but the relationships between pairs of characters is familiar and vital to them—there is a sense that, while there is constant conflict between them, they need one another to survive.

Beckett limits Winnie's actions by burying her up to the waist in a mound of earth, while Willie, paying little attention to her from behind his newspaper, sits where she can't see him easily. She is constantly trying to get his attention, is apologetic when he doesn't respond but, on the rare occasion when he speaks or moves, declares that this will be a "happy day". After the interval, Winnie is buried up to the neck, limiting her expression further to facial movements and Beckett's words.

An article in the programme discusses Beckett's use of "language as a deadening force of habit", stating that "Beckett called for a delivery of the text that was colourless, transparent, inexpressive, precise and 'mild'." This is a very difficult thing to achieve—Beckett himself directed Billie Whitelaw in the part, going through "the pronunciation, tone and emphasis of each syllable of every word in the long text"—and this production struggles with it.

While largely it is a stream of banalities without a plot to string them together, it needs some kind of unity to carry the audience along for two hours; this comes through the character—and Peake creates a strong, recognisable character—and through precise attention to the pace of the delivery, which here is variable.

The production comes most alive in the moments that are treated as comic. While the delivery is a long way from the above description from Beckett—Peake reminded me of a Victoria Wood character as played by Julie Walters—these moments are entertaining and have a flow that keep the audience's attention and which is lacking elsewhere.

Naomi Dawson's set is impressive and imposing: a giant wart of soil and grass with plastic waste at the bottom, all surrounded by a dark pool of water. To get around the issue of visibility, the whole mound slowly rotates constantly, although if you are unlucky (as I was), you may find that the hole in which Willie lives is facing away from you on each rare occasion that he actually does something.

Jack Knowles's lighting design surrounds the stage with rock concert-style banks of white lights, which gently pulse, seemingly at random, giving the impression of clouds passing overhead.

While there are elements of the production that are impressive and occasionally entertaining, this is a long way from the compelling Endgame staged by HOME and the Glasgow Citizens just two years ago.

Reviewer: David Chadderton