The current production of Beckett’s Happy Days at London’s Young Vic Theatre is an impressive one.

As one enters the performance space, the actress Juliet Stevenson – Winnie – is already in position: buried up to her waist in sand, boulders and rocks forming her backdrop in this isolated desert of sorts. As if this was the most natural place in the world to be, Winnie opens the performance brightly and cheerily, with an optimism that needs to persist, though with increasingly less plausibility and much more fragility as time passes, to the very end of the play:

‘Another heavenly day!’

Winnie then spends a few moments in silent prayer. For the next 90 minutes or so, there is little room for silence as Winnie conducts a monologue for almost the entirety, with very occasional interjections by Willie, who appears to be nearby, lying in a subterranean cave. Willie is a presence that feels necessary throughout, yet he seems of questionable significance in his own right.

Winnie chastises herself at times for her gabbling: ‘Stop talking and do something’. What ‘something’ is or might be is unclear, stuck as she is, waist high in sand. Yet she is continually ‘doing something’ – the act of talking itself, while at the same time also ‘getting ready’. She continually dips into the large black bag beside her, taking in and out the tools she uses to do her makeup and to fix her hair. The objects in the bag appear to serve an important function in terms of Winnie’s need to repeatedly take them out and put them back into the black bag, as well as her need to arrange them neatly before her, perhaps incongruously, on the hot sand. The objects, and how they are used by Winnie, also serve to frame her day, the ‘normality’ of mundane tasks affording a reality that may reassure, as well as serving as memory props from another time.

Day and time passes, a fact that Winnie draws our attention to, alluding frequently to change and the effects of ageing, moments of physical realisation interrupting the stream of consciousness that escapes her psychical entrapment.

Winnie initially appears isolated and alone, trapped as much in her mental meanderings as she is in her bed of sand, a self imprisonment in every sense of the word. But then Willie appears from his hole beneath the rocks. We learn little about Willie, but his role and function in Winnie’s life becomes clear. She needs him, repeatedly calling on him to confirm his presence, and when he, perhaps reluctantly, answers, she feels reassured:

‘You are there’

Winnie speaks to us, the audience, and we, like Willie, are essential witnesses to her spoken thoughts:

‘Someone is caring for me still’

In Part 2, Winnie has sunk further into the sand, which now reaches her neck. In Part 1, she had reassured us that she needed the sand, it anchored her; otherwise she would merely ‘float up’. This reassurance is now hard to believe as, while Winnie remains outwardly optimistic and positive – ‘Another Happy Day’ – it is acutely and painfully clear what a struggle it all is for her tortured physical and mental self.

I was surprised by the humour in Happy Days. Yet, a sense of bleakness and tragedy underpins the laughter. At the end, the title of the play, ‘Happy Days’, reverberates with a pathos that is almost palpable. Beckett’s ultimate irony shocks one into the surreal reality of witnessing the almost unbearable extent of human anguish. As Willie crawls towards the drowning Winnie, a pistol lying between them, it is hard to believe that happiness exists at all.

CQ 

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