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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

The American masthead
1040 Abroad

Happy Days

By Samuel Beckett
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London W6
Until 25 July

www.riversidestudios.co.uk, www.happydaysplaylondon.com, @HappyDaysLDN
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Published on December 30, 1899

Happy Days Lisa Dwan in Happy Days. PHOTO: HELEN MAYBANKS

Definitive is not a helpful way to describe a performance of a classic, as each generation must find its own way in, but it’s hard to think how Irish actor Lisa Dwan’s Winnie could be any better.

The phoenix-like reopening of the Riverside Studios (after 5 years), for this 60th anniversary production of the play, reminds us too that Beckett had a significant association with this venue in the ‘70s.

This Winnie is a middle-class south Dublin matron and Dwan, being Irish too, can conjure up the precise vocal inflections and turns of phrase which probably were rolling around in Beckett’s head as he invented her. The result is hilarious.

Dwan nails the humour, which is key, and can time a line with the finesse of a great comic, and it is this that makes the bleakness of the second Act even more poignant, because we’ve already laughed at and with this spirited character.

Trevor Nunn’s direction is crisp and clear and avoids the too obvious pitfalls of so many others, of laying the symbolism on with a trowel, be it nuclear Armageddon or climate crisis. Such encrustations miss the broader point that this is more about inner despair than anything to do with the outer physical world.

Robert Jones’ impressive design is a huge letterbox panorama that takes up a whole side of the space and Tim Mitchell’s painterly lighting designs are just exquisite, especially of the transcendent final moments. Johnny Edwards sound is ace too.

What we’re presented with here is a meditation on keeping going, quite apt for our pandemic times and, despite the nihilist ending, the piece leaves one oddly hopeful. This is Dwan’s doing. Her impish, blithe Winnie is forever young. Her bonhomie is genuine and only occasionally reined in with the odd bit of performative respectability, which you never fully believe. Most of the time you realise she’s the interesting one, chained forever to an inarticulate lump of a husband (Simon Wolfe spot-on as Willie). You also sense that she would be, in today’s terms, an ‘activist’. “Stop talking and do something for a change”, sez she.

And has there ever been a more perfect representation of a marriage gone off? Willie an inattentive lump, Winnie nattering on to fill the void but, crucially, deciding never to be deflated by his lack of response. Finally, wearied in Act 2 though, she fillets him with that great line about the day he came “whining for my hand”. “I worship you Winne. Be Mine. Then nothing from that day forward”.

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