Robert Tanitch reviews Happy Days at the Young Vic, London SE1
Samuel Beckett has produced some unforgettable images. And none more so than the woman who spends the first act buried up to her waist in earth and the second act buried up to her neck in iearth, a potent symbol for the human condition.
Beckett asks specifically for a simple mound of scorched earth and a blazing sun. Here we get a cascading mountain and Juliet Stevenson stuck in a frozen avalanche. Winnie is a cheerful housewife, who suffers from migraine, loss of memory, poor eyesight and boredom. She fills in her day, prattling away. Her marriage has not been happy one; but she rarely complains and is ever grateful for the smallest of mercies.
Ever since the play’s premiere in 1961, the role (which Beckett likened to “a bird with oil on its feathers”) has attracted famous actresses and most of them have had a dreadful time trying to learn the difficult and inconsequential text.
Beckett was a hard taskmaster. He didn’t want any feeling. He wanted monotony. He was obsessed with pronunciation and gave meticulous physical and verbal instructions. Peggy Ashcroft, Brenda Bruce and Billie Whitelaw all suffered during rehearsal.
In the first act I thought Juliet Stevenson was incredibly good. The second act falters until Willie (her husband) crawls out of his hole and on to the mountain slope and makes a desperate attempt to reach her.