Friday, 24 January 2014

Happy Days, Young Vic

It's startling, walking in off the Cut to find there's been a landslide inside the Young Vic theatre. The set for Natalie Abrahami's production of Beckett's Happy Days doesn't so much dominate the space as swallow it. A cliff face from the flies to the foot of the seating the round, the very real threat of this monumental carbuncle is not only in its size. There is also a trickle of stones that tumble down its face, an indication of the manner in which Winnie comes to be increasingly subsumed. More than this, the stage crew are kitted out as if dealing with the aftermath of a serious event and at the (preview) show I attended, one of them struggled to keep his footing.

I didn't feel immediately under threat myself watching this show. The violent electroacoustic klaxon ('bell' in the text) apart, I felt able to hold the performance to its fourth wall boundary. This is just as well, as the play, for all its good humour, is quietly end-of-days. Juliet Stevenson's Winnie is played as a middle-class suburban housewife suddenly stranded on a rock. I imagined Margot from The Good Life dropped into Martin Pincher. The mix of perky, repetitively mundane chat and the almost surreal incongruity of her situation are disarming. In both acts she mentions a passing couple commenting on her situation as if it must be voluntary. One is dependent on Stevenson to guide us through the implications of the possibility of her having a 'choice' as much as the grand metaphor that this hour-and-a-half monologue surely is.

I thought Stevenson's performance remarkable. Naturally it's quite an endurance test to carry a full-length play alone, quite without the bother of being unable to move. I am obliged to note my confusion at not being able to see the other character of Willy, Winnie's husband (David Beames) at all in the first half, by virtue of the sheer bulk and thrust of the set. Though it wouldn't have been an intention of Beckett's, it did force me to redouble my concentration on Winnie: her ever-so-slightly contrived optimism and deep, deep-buried fear. Such is the nature of being wholesomely middle-class, perhaps. There you go. If self-examination isn't the point of theatre then I can't think what is.

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