Maxine Peake is an actor who wrings a lot out of her face. Which is good news, because for much of Happy Days that's as much as the audience can see of her. In Samuel Beckett's testing two-hander, the Royal Exchange's associate artist is buried waist-deep, and subsequently up to her neck, in metaphor – and more besides.
Happy Days, the most recent collaboration between Peake and director Sarah Frankcom, is almost perfect in using the theatre's striking in-the-round set-up. With Peake's Winnie and husband Willie (David Crellin) stuck in or on a revolving pyramid of scorched earth, it's as if someone has deposited a large termite mound inside a mini Hadron Collider. It's a remarkable thing to come across in any theatre; in the Royal Exchange, Naomi Dawson's set makes perfect sense.
But perhaps more a moat than a mound. There is a sense of isolation provided by a circle of water, with plastic littering the shoreline. Beckett's absurdist play may function as a metaphor for life, love and loneliness, but its protagonists are trapped within a very real pile of dirt.
From here Winnie embarks on what is an almost complete monologue, punctuated only with rare interjections from the apparently-serene Willie. She seems to fear silence; he appears to hate noise. Taken alone, Winnie's words might amount to little but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
She cleans her teeth, erects a parasol, chides her husband. The juxtaposition of crashing monotony and the surreal situation allows for a deep exploration of futility kept at bay by whimsy, habit and buggering on; a cream cracker, underground, on an impossible island.
Despite her predicament, Winnie tries to remain upbeat, albeit with "sorrow breaking in". Happy Days is a portrait of stoicism in an age of anxiety; of the power and powerlessness of words.
Peake's performance is reminiscent of erstwhile situation comedy's leading ladies. It's hard to not detect a little of Julie Walters, Patricia Routledge, Barbara Lott; a Sydney Lotterby housewife swallowed up by interminable days filled with mild self-reproach, pointless pleasantries and nervous verbosity.
If the Royal Exchange feels made for Happy Days, the Winnie could have been written for Peake. As a feat of recollection, her monologue would be impressive in itself, but Peake manages to imbue Winnie with such rich detail, using every inch of flesh available to bring nuance to her words and gestures. Even as she launches into more platitudes, her fingers worry the straggly grass beneath her.
In the second half, only her head is visible, slowly rotating while a small camera displays her visage on screens above the stage. Willie is apparently gone. Peake uses every muscle on her face to convey the growing panic, her stiff upper lip only occasionally glanced. Her voice grows more staccato, shrill, entreating. In the end, the audience is offered a choice as to how they view the many dualities Beckett serves up, but it leaves a troubling afterimage.
If Happy Days is a test of a spectator's mettle it must be gruelling indeed for Peake, who takes fulsome audience applause while still encased in the mound, moving only to dab at her brow, having been assailed by blinding lights and deafening bells while encased in theatre's most famous hillock.
She looked to breathe a sigh of relief, exhaustion, satisfaction, perhaps elation. In its own way, the audience might have joined in.