Only on leaving the theatre are you struck by what a phenomenal feat of memory you’ve just witnessed. That alone justified Siobhan McSweeney’s standing ovation from a grateful, and perhaps slightly bemused audience, last night at the Birmingham Rep. Grateful because it is a stunning achievement. Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who had a fair crack at the part herself, describes the leading role, Winnie, as “one of those parts, I believe, that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at Hamlet – a summit part.” And bemused, because unlike Van Gogh whose work was misunderstand in his lifetime, but in time came to be embraced, Beckett’s work continues to be defiantly cryptic, mercurial and inaccessible in any conventional sense.
We are met with mounds of sands. Location and time unspecified and buried up to her waist in it is Winnie, who seems far from annoyed by this incapacitation. At the sound of a bell she wakes and continues, it seems, to live her bland and tedious day all over with all but a scattering of possessions to give her life meaning. From there on in we watch a meandering monologue of intrigue, delight, humour with little giving us insight beyond what we see. Perhaps it is an old woman suffering a breakdown? Succumbing to dementia? Trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare drawn by Donald McGill? Seaside iconography feature widely. Perhaps it’s a holiday? Who knows? Did Beckett? But like a Kandinsky painting we’re not looking for hard and fast images and representation of reality but a verbal and visual experience jettisoning every standard trope usually employed challenging us to just live with it for an evening or so and take from it what you will.
Perhaps, as Kenneth Tynan, said it’s “a metaphor extended beyond its capacity.” Maybe it is, but without being entirely sure what the metaphor is it’s hard to agree. Siobhan McSweeney’s Winnie is in turn, coy, loquacious, endearing, bashful and very funny. This is a funny play. Though an absurdist writer Beckett knows how to play a crowd. The beats, the rhythms, the drop-lines are all there but twisted, broken and reconfigured and all the more intriguing for it. Howard Teale gives more than ample support, and great physicality, as husband Willie, who spends a great amount of time acting with his back until his epic crawl Winnie-wards at the end. Fascinating to watch and doubtless exhausting to perform. Director Caitriona McLaughlin avoids any attempt to explain, justify, re-imagine or contextualised any of it. It’s as daft and batty as it’s always been and her deft direction brings out the humour tempered with moments of bleak, endless, existential anxiety.
Beckett is so rarely done these days, indeed it was my first ever live experience, and it’s a delight to see the Rep, once again, offering works of such importance and substance. I came away feeling the entire piece crashes onto the sand like a refreshingly brave wave of new ideas, thoughts, insights, expressions and ideas. Living, as we do, it a Netflixian world of pre-packaged Hollywood stories, monomyth plotting and relentless formats it proved a portal to a new world of possibilities, which I guess is what all great art is for…
Until 1st July, https://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/happy-days/
Reviewer: Peter Kinnock
Reviewed: 28th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: