mon 22/07/2024

Happy Days, Young Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Happy Days, Young Vic

Happy Days, Young Vic

The great Juliet Stevenson mesmerises in Beckett's tragic-heroic role of a lifetime

Juliet Stevenson's Winnie utilises the contents of her handbagBoth images by Johan Persson

For those who never saw Samuel Beckett’s favoured performer Billie Whitelaw on stage as indomitable, buried-alive Winnie, peculiarly happy days are here again with another once-in-a-generation actress facing what Dame Peggie Ashcroft called “a ‘summit’ part”, the female equivalent of Hamlet.

Juliet Stevenson makes you think not so much “what a great performance” as “what a towering masterpiece of a play” – and how often do star interpretations even of the big Shakespeare roles prompt that kind of reaction?

This is, in short, the works: 90 plus minutes of perfectly modulated near-monologue in which Stevenson’s infinite variety, channelled with no false note by wise young director Natalie Abrahami, proves that you can’t draw any conclusion about our heroine’s predicament, only sheer wonder at her tenacious survival. Every moment is so authentic - despair, optimism, anger, fondness, pathos, comedy – that it’s impossible to leave the Young Vic’s dreamspace having come down on the side of any one of them.

We don’t know why Winnie is there, in the first act at least within reach of her life-support handbag and brolly-strike of mostly monosyllabic husband Willie (David Beames, bizarrely touching), bringing the shingle tumbling down the funnel between the Silurian cliffs of Vicki Mortimer’s masterly design, enduring a bell for waking and sleeping which is more of a jump-out-of-your-skin pneumatic drill, sometimes even welcoming the pitiless sun.

Certainly it’s a metaphor, but for what, especially when this Winnie’s “it is what it is” attitude feeds into our veins and hearts? The mire of depression, the blank repetitions of senile dementia – more resonant here in Willie’s case than in Winnie’s – are bound to chime most with today's audience, though probably less so for those of the 1960s, for whom the entombment of an unfulfilled housewife may have struck more of a chord.

Happy Days at the Young Vic, photo by Johan PerssonHumanity versus implacable time and eternity, that’s a crucial ingredient too, made the more monumental by Mortimer’s work with Paule Constable’s pitiless lighting. At times, too, Winnie is more like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, so alone that she addresses objects and makes them complicit participants in her little world.

Yes, the protagonist could only be a woman, as Beckett’s account of his initial vision made abundantly clear; there are tendernesses and absurdities, so subtly etched by Stevenson, that a male actor would be hard pressed to evoke in the same way. The musicality and the poetry of Winnie’s seemingly random but devastatingly well structured observations to pass dead time are evoked by an actress of astonishing vocal range and dynamics.

As in a great two-movement symphony, the motifs we laugh at, however nervously, in the first hour – the fantasy Winnie weaves for herself of a passing couple who may be the Showers or the Cookers, the poignancy of early courtship remembered, the right time for the day’s rituals – come back to haunt us when we return from the interval to find Winnie buried up to her neck (Stevenson pictured above with Beames). Those eloquent, fluttering hand gestures – presumably worked on with movement director Joseph Alford - have had to go; the face laments its missing arms and breasts, observes its tongue and nose, but what comes out of the mouth are words in diminished tones.

The symmetrical coup – and in such a masterpiece, such things as spoiler notices aren’t necessary – is when the voice that manages to sing the Merry Widow waltz handily played by the music-box in the big black bag is Willie’s, making his wife’s day, in Act One, but finally Winnie’s in a last soft and low, ambiguous triumph.

I left legless and yet treading air, like our upward-aspiring heroine, wanting to see as many actresses as possible in the role, night after night. Lindsay Duncan and Harriet Walter would be good candidates; so would Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, who has lamented the dearth of strong roles for older actresses. Well, here perhaps is the tragic-heroic benchmark. And though I’m sure all those ladies would bring different insights, none could possibly outshine Stevenson.

The musicality and the poetry of Winnie’s observations to pass dead time are evoked by an actress of astonishing vocal range and dynamics


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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