These Days Are Ours

Theater Review: Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” @ BAM

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To use the skippy theme song from the 50’s-era television hit “Happy Days” as intermission music was a cute a touch. Unfortunately, director Deborah Warner and lead actress, Fiona Shaw, eroded Beckett’s dire existential portrait that explores human isolation, our resistance to aging, and the need ultimately, to feel loved at the end of life, into an evening that may just be too fancy to really deliver the message.

The production, hailing from the National Theatre of Great Britain, has been playing this month at Brooklyn Academy of Music to much acclaim. Although, I am not the first to hand a citation to the production for its optimistically literal take on the title. And this is not to say that there isn’t humor in Beckett’s script, in fact, there is no shortage of it. But Deborah Warner seems more intent on playing up the play’s humorous qualities, rather than bravely delving into its more sober realities.

From the dreamy silk curtain that drops like a shimmery waterfall to reveal the heroine in both acts, to the cute single panel of landscape that drops neatly behind Tom Pye’s excellent set–a post-apocalyptic expanse of rubble that sprawls over the entire stage of the BAM Harvey Theater, spilling off the sides and up to the front row of seats–Ms. Warner seems to pad the more craggy themes of Beckett’s drama with touches of glamor. Even the set is extravagant to a degree Beckett probably never saw in his lifetime. (On a side note, only about ten per cent of the theater–the gilded center section–could actually appreciate the affect of the single panel of landscape, the view you see in the picture above. Our seat was off to the side, so we watched Ms. Shaw–for an hour and a half–set in front of three bright stage lights. Our suggestion would be to have either A.) created a semi-circular backdrop so that more of the audience could enjoy the affect, or B.) get rid of it entirely and just use the beautifully dilapidated back wall of the theater, which would have been perfect for this piece.)

Ms. Shaw is obviously a master at her craft. And she knows how to pull out the stage tricks–sniffing her arm pit, using her arms to literally dive into Winnie’s handbag, mugging and wink-winking her way through much of the text–drawing the audience into complicity in the self-generated humor that distracts Winnie from feeling hopeless. But she rides dangerously close to not being able to transcend that false pleasure.

And yes, all the animated hand gestures Ms. Shaw uses in Act One only intensify our shock when in Act Two, Winnie’s humanity is even further reduced as she is submerged deeper into the rubble, now up to her neck. But then Ms. Warner, either being cute or literal or both, smears some black makeup on Ms. Shaw’s teeth to, presumably, give the look of an aged, withered Winnie. But by altering Winnie’s appearance, we lose the previous image of her as a reference point to sense the affect of the new condition on the character. Rather, Ms. Warner tells us the affect: she has aged, literally, losing the precious teeth she had been fretting over from the beginning.

Further fiddling with the script came via interpolating sexual innuendo, most obviously in the choice to have Willie (Tim Potter), Winnie’s inept husband and a character I have never liked, masturbating behind one of the mounds rather than fanning himself with a newspaper. This gave me even less reason to like him. And it’s not that there is no sexual innuendo in Beckett’s script, there is, but, like playing up what’s funny, Ms. Warner’s choice to play up the sex jokes distracts us from being touched by the underlying seriousness of the situation at hand: Winnie’s situation. Ms. Warner’s technique encourages immature discomfort, or dissociation through humor, rather than serious engagement, which is a habit Beckett means precisely to warn against with this drama.

But there were moments when Beckett’s existential side came across full force. When, for instance, tucked into the ticker tape of ideas, chores and opinions that Winnie routinely utters, she slips in the desire to simply be heard, that life would be bearable if she knew for sure that Willie could hear her, it resonates a fundamental need we humans have to be recognized. Shaw makes the isolation palpable.

Likewise, when Winnie is submerged to her neck in the rubble, Ms. Shaw breaks into moments where she appears as a raving child who, unable to touch or be touched, viciously howls from her face. There are few images in human culture as historically terrifying as an angry, bodiless head come back to torment us.

But for all its pleasantries–and there are many–nothing excuses Ms. Warner’s aborted attempt to end the play, which shuts off abruptly after an inexplicable lighting shift and errant industrial sound effect. There is no effort to realize Beckett’s tender, tense, mysterious ending where Winnie, after finally singing “her song,” ending with the lyrics, “It’s true! It’s true! You love me so,” looks without a smile into Willie’s eyes. There should really be a deep pause here, pregnant with question.

All in all, this probably is the happiest of “Happy Days” you can find. Some advice to Ms. Warner: Stop meddling with the script and the fancy curtain, and get comfortable with the darker side of Beckett. It’s not as scary as you think.

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2 Comments

  1. I felt much the same about this production, which diluted the power of Beckett’s play. Unfortunately, most critics are bowing before Shaw and Warner as if they are infallible. Your critique, as the one in the VIllage Voice, which actually wasn’t critical enough, were the few I read which I thought honest assessments. How refreshing!!!

    There is one other, really extensive and thorough, and it is blistering. You can find it here –

    http://nietzschecircle.com/hyperion081.html

  2. I am relieved to see that others share my opinion of this production. I felt the humor in the original play was not strong enough to make it a comedy (since it wasn’t supposed to be) despite the director’s haphazard attempt to force it to be so. We are thus left with a series of not very funny jokes and circumstances that only help to take a way from the poignancy of the drama in Beckett’s play. This is an excellent review to a very disappointing production.


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