Winnie (Judith Lucy), a mature woman sits buried up to her chest in a giant mound of dirt.
She is surrounded by an endless desert in which nothing grows and there is nothing to see. She has a bag filled with an assortment of items to keep herself entertained for the day. Toiletries, an umbrella, her nice hat, and a gun which is always there. But Winnie is endlessly positive. She waxes poetry, remembers the good old days, and does everything to convince herself that THIS is a happy day, at least so far.
Her life partner Willie (Hayden Spencer) is rarely seen and even more rarely heard. He occasionally ventures out from his burrow in the mound behind Winnie to read the paper aloud but prefers to sleep through the day as much as possible, a virtue Winnie finds admirable as it’s something she cannot do, or more is not allowed to do. A bell wakes her up in the morning and a bell tells her it’s time to sleep again. Between these times she natters away at nobody in particular. But Willie talked to her today! Twice even! This really is looking like a happy day for sure!
Directed by Petra Kalive, Happy Days is truly a doozy of a play written by Samuel Beckett and was first performed over 60 years ago. It has seen countless revivals and is considered one of the greatest plays of all time. Like his masterpiece ‘Waiting For Godot’, it explores the human condition and presents a character in an existential crisis.
Beckett famously tried to sue a Dutch theatre company for going against his wishes and casting female actors in ‘Godot’. It is then fascinating that in this regard, Happy Days was both ahead of its time and timeless in its depiction of society’s views towards women. Who else can find themselves buried waist deep (and as of Act 2, neck deep) in the sand and still be expected to smile and put on a happy face but a woman? Willie is able to lethargically adapt to his absurd post-apocalyptic situation but Winnie is the one forced to endure it.
A show like this requires an amazing performer to pull off the role of Winnie. Make no mistake, for all intents and purposes this is a one woman show. Clocking in at over 90 minutes Judith Lucy is centre stage and monologuing practically the entire time. I’ve always liked Lucy as a comedian but her performance in Happy Days gives me a new level of respect for her. The sheer ability to be able to flawlessly recall Beckett’s prose for the entire show is almost superhuman.
There are props but little does the play rely on them or even on much action or movement itself. Especially in the play’s final half hour as Winnie finds herself buried even deeper and now has even less to occupy her time with. The emotions flow hot and cold with both the horror of this dark existence but also with humour and moments of levity. Lucy has the gift of being able to make an audience erupt with laughter while doing almost nothing at all.
There is nothing much one can derive from the play looking at it literally. In fact, the play seems to mock the very idea when Winnie recounts the last people she ever saw, a Mr and Mrs Shower who asked what her predicament was supposed to mean. Rather, its metaphors are up for interpretation even if some of them are quite clear as day.
On the production side, Happy Days is simple yet impressive. The monolithic mound of dirt in the cracked desert covers the entire stage with a rear projection depicting to the endless nothingness behind. No still image though but a sky with a cloud which moves imperceptibly slow from east to west.
The sound design by J. David Franzke was the real highlight for me. With an eerie ambient sound which somehow feels even more silent than no backing sound at all. Heaven help you if you drop a glass or your tummy rumbles in the middle of this play as the entire theatre will hear it.
Happy Days is a play you must be in the right state of mind to fully appreciate and is one of the most fascinating plays I’ve ever seen. Judith Lucy is amazing and the Melbourne Theatre Company have a real cracker on their hands with this production.
Happy Days is currently playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until the 10th of June 2023.
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Photography by Pia Johnson.