Samuel Beckett’s classic drama about the survival of the human spirit, Happy Days, opened on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage on Wednesday (24 January 2007, following previews from 18 January), in a production by Deborah Warner, starring Fiona Shaw.

The duo, who have previously collaborated on Medea, Electra, Hedda Gabler, The Waste Land, Richard II, The Good Person of Sichuan and The Powerbook, fell out with the Beckett estate over their 1994 production of Footfalls after contravening specific stage directions. However, they have now received permission for their production of Beckett’s 1960 play, in which Shaw plays sand-buried optimist Winnie. Happy Days runs in rep to 1 March 2007.

Overnight critics all hailed the play as a masterpiece, and enjoyed Shaw’s buoyancy in the role of a woman facing certain death, remarking on her believable, often hilarious performance. However, some were not quite as convinced by her deterioration into sad acceptance, and while many were impressed by the scale of Tom Pye’s apocalyptic set, some felt it was a distraction from the intimate piece.

  • Heather Neill on (4 stars) – “Samuel Beckett’s austere existential vision of the loneliness of the individual facing the inevitable - death - has become familiar. Not cosy exactly, but familiar…. familiarity has taken away the edge and put more emphasis on the performance of Winnie. The play has, in spite of itself, become a star vehicle - and Fiona Shaw is undoubtedly a star; intelligent, larger-than-life and articulate, she has enthusiastically analysed her approach to Winnie and this difficult text in newspapers and on the radio…. her extraordinary performance is the result of collaboration with director Deborah Warner, with whom she has worked on a number of projects at the National and a previous Beckett - Footfalls - over which the pair fell out with the Beckett Estate. This time the production is kept within accepted bounds but nevertheless has a very distinctive flavour…. This is not the first time Happy Days has been staged at the Lyttelton… But it is an enormous space to fill; the Cottesloe might seem a more natural choice. Nevertheless, the production gains from that lonely spread of inhospitable devastation in Pye’s design over which Shaw’s performance towers.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “There is no actress whom I would sooner see trapped up to her waist in earth than Fiona Shaw. At least I used to think so - whenever I fantasised about who would be best suited to play Winnie, the comic-pathetic heroine of Samuel Beckett's parable about death and lament for the dying of the light…. In Deborah Warner's overpitched production with Tom Pye's nuclear-blasted landscape, her Winnie struck me as a crudely comic, patronising send-up of a character, who ought to inspire bleak amusement. I was left untouched and unmoved, unamused by a black tragi-comedy without parallel in the recent English language…. She seems far more vacuous, far more of a slick comedy turn than Beckett ever intended…. Shaw, amazingly, never catches or expresses the undercurrents of fear or stoicism that characterise the woman. She even misses the notes of grim irony with which Winnie keeps celebrating her dwindled existence…. Anyone who responds to Beckett but does not know Happy Days would be crazy to miss this rare, exquisite masterpiece. The rest of us can only hope Shaw will yet discover the real Winnie, who surely lies somewhere within her.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “Deborah Warner isn’t a director to do anything by halves or even three quarters, and the mound in which she has placed Fiona Shaw sticks out of a vast mess of broken concrete, grainy stones and general rubble. The stage looks so much like a demolition site that for a moment I thought some charitable builder had started to pull down that unappealing theatre, the Lyttelton…. Winnie is everyone who has to keep talking, talking, talking to be sure he or she is alive. More specifically, she’s every woman who has squandered her life enduring the daily tedium, trying to enjoy the domestic trivia, and, despite her best efforts, failing to communicate with a maddeningly taciturn husband. It’s hardly the most sanguine view of marriage or life, but, as Shaw plays it, it’s often surprisingly funny…. Warner has surely picked up on Winnie’s claim that she expects to melt, burn, or ‘little by little be charred into a cinder.’ Put together her words, the explosion and Tom Pye’s shattered set, and it’s hard to forget that our scientists have just put forward the nuclear clock almost to midnight. Shaw’s Winnie is somehow surviving not just boredom and personal disappointment but danger and desolation…. grief, cynicism, desperation, fear insidiously break through… The comedy is at an end. So is a memorable performance in an awesome play.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) - “What strikes one, in contrast to his lesser work, is the pliability of Beckett's text. In Shaw's hands, the progressively entombed Winnie becomes a defiantly jaunty, mischievously ironic, straw-hatted Irishwoman whose main fear is that words will fail her…. Shaw's performance and Warner's production also sharply capture Winnie's accelerating decline. By the second act, buried up to her neck in earth, Shaw's Winnie has turned into a raddled, sun-scorched, black-toothed figure who has lost much of her earlier buoyancy. And what Shaw brings out, with stunning clarity, is Winnie's dependence on, and superiority to, her half-hidden husband…. This is a brilliant naturalistic performance conceived very much in terms of Shaw's own stage persona. And the sense of realism is reinforced not just by Pye's monumentally arid set but by Mel Mercier's sound score filled with apocalyptic rumbles…. What I miss is the simplicity and musicality of previous productions of this resonant masterpiece…. Shaw is a fine Winnie. But, in a perfect world, Winnie's determination to beat back the darkness would be combined with the lambent music of Beckett's language and the distilled purity of his stage image.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Brilliantly acted by Shaw, it is a staging that superbly captures that combination of wild laughter and existential terror that is the hallmark of all Beckett's greatest work…. it is astonishing how many of the play's lines concerning blinding light and hellish heat seem to anticipate our present fears of global warming. In a tour-de-force of wondrous invention and energy, Shaw, speaking in a lovely lilting Irish brogue that suits Beckett perfectly, poignantly captures the insane good cheer with which Winnie confronts her desperate circumstances, as well as the moments of dread and fear that give the lie to her bright façade…. as so often in Beckett, this desperate vision of human existence somehow proves bracing rather than depressing. And there is an undoubted thrill in confronting the void in the company of a superbly in-form Fiona Shaw, who delivers the dramatist's potent stage poetry to perfection.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell