Review Round-up: Juliet Stevenson's up to her neck in Happy Days
Beckett's ''Happy Days'', which famously features a character who spends her time immersed in a mound of earth, has been revived at the Young Vic starring Juliet Stevenson
Stevenson is a great actress with a wonderful vocal range, which she here channels through a staccato, almost anti-lyrical, suburban chattering. It's a deliberately perverse reading, nothing smooth or genteel about it, but she wins through triumphantly in the second act, virtually unrecognisable, head bobbing desperately, still talking, in the deadly sandcastle... She's ordinary to the point of self-parody, the stripped-down spiritual cousin of Patricia Routledge's Hyacinth Bucket... Director Natalie Abrahami has supervised this striking reinterpretation with great skill, considerably abetted by the design of Vicki Mortimer and the lighting of Paule Constable...
…It offers the greatest role for a woman in Beckett's work and has been described as the actress's equivalent of King Lear. Watching Stevenson's mesmerising performance such a description doesn't seem hyperbolic. It is a piece that sounds the emotional depths, while also managing to be funny and touching too… The last two Winnies I saw - Felicity Kendal and Fiona Shaw - both spoke with an Irish accent. Stevenson in contrast is very English, very middle class, the sort of woman who in happier circumstances would be running her local Women's Institute. Her Winnie displays a very British kind of fortitude that I found highly persuasive... There are moments in life when I suspect most of us feel like Winnie - up to our neck in it, with no discernible way out. And that is what lends this peculiar yet deeply compassionate play its extraordinary power and resonance.
Beckett's Happy Days, with its progressively entombed heroine, would seem to be trapped in its own fixed image. Yet what is extraordinary is how much latitude it offers its performer; and in the case of Juliet Stevenson, now playing Winnie in a startling new production by Natalie Abrahami, what emerges is a woman whose tragic awareness of her plight is as powerful as her stoic endurance... while Stevenson certainly shows Winnie's entrapment as the shingle from the vertical cliff of Vicki Mortimer's set descends in a landslip, she reverses the usual pattern by showing the heroine as more desperate in the play's first half than in the second... It strikes me as a brilliantly intelligent performance that suggests that Winnie's busy chatter masks an Aeschylean sense of despair and that the anticipation of disaster is worse than the actuality.
Juliet Stevenson brings grace, poise and a crazed resilience to the incurably optimistic Winnie. The role is as challenging as any in theatre. While Stevenson is not as brittle or playful as others who have taken it on, her performance is deeply intelligent and skilful. Like pretty much every character of Beckett's, Winnie is trapped. She is buried in a mound of scree - at first as far as her waist and later up to her neck. While her arms remain above the surface she can gesticulate, but she can't escape... What's extraordinary, besides Vicki Mortimer's brilliantly constructed design, is how mobile Stevenson seems, despite being almost as static as a performer can be. Her ability to modulate her voice is remarkable and, crucially, she can also make the tiniest gestures appear balletic. But while Natalie Abrahami's production has plenty of fresh ideas - not least avoiding any suggestion that Winnie is Irish - it could be more intimate.
Stevenson... brings a resolute breeziness and nimbleness to the part that contrasts heartbreakingly with her predicament. She and director Natalie Abrahami find every ounce of comedy in the play. Woken from slumber by a hideous, blaring bell, Stevenson's Winnie has a moment's doubt before she leaps into action, putting on her brave face. "Another heavenly day," she chirrups, beaming at the audience... She battles amiably to engage Willie (David Beames), her taciturn spouse, who lurks in a hole nearby, in conversation... Stevenson, looking frighteningly skeletal already and using her features with great precision, projects the grim battle between the will to live and the desire to sleep. And yet, there's a heartening spiritual resilience about her.