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Reviewed by:
  • Happy Days by Samuel Beckett
  • Mert Dilek
HAPPY DAYS. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Anthology Theatre, Riverside Studios, London. June 18, 2021.

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is, among many other things, a study in contrasts. The play’s juxtapositions of the loquacious Winnie with her taci-turn husband, of her frenzied upper limbs with her immured legs, and of her cheery attitude with slippages of despair are part and parcel of its dramatic world. While directing the play in the 1970s, Beckett even wanted the contents of Winnie’s bag to consist of contrasting elements, with her small magnifying-glass supported by a long handle, for example, and her revolver’s short butt paired with a long muzzle. Trevor Nunn’s 2021 London production, starring the acclaimed Beckett performer Lisa Dwan, treated this dramaturgy of disparity as the hinge on which the play’s affective impact turns. Nunn’s staging, which marked the sixtieth anniversary of the play’s premiere, was attuned especially to the contrasts between its two acts, mining and amplifying them in its portrayal of Winnie’s plight as one of radical decay over time.

Buried up to above her waist in a low mound of earth and scorched grass, the first act’s Winnie was awakened in this production not by the piercing rings of a bell, as the script calls for, but by a series of sonorous gong sounds. This slight dilution of aural disturbance was matched by the visual reticence of Robert Jones’s panoramic scenography, pervaded by a cool palette of beige and brown tones. Where Beckett’s script asks for the illusionism of a “very pompier trompe-l’oeil backcloth,” Jones’s gently curving backdrop displayed a more abstract, muted aesthetic. This was, to borrow Winnie’s own words, “perhaps a shade off color,” as the sleek composition did not quite radiate the blazing heat so central to Winnie’s situation. Instead, Nunn’s production found its blaze elsewhere, in Dwan herself: magnetically vivacious, her Winnie of the first act was aflame with an adamance of spirit that managed, for the most part, to restrain her inner turmoil. Dwan’s deft performance foregrounded the frantic dynamism of Winnie’s speech, movements, and affects, with its reduction in the second act cementing the contrastive relation between the play’s two parts.

Dwan’s Winnie contained multitudes, and those multitudes kept her going. At first, this made her even more of a misfit in her cruel environment: she was simply too full of life, too wide-ranging in her inclinations, to be stuck in a mound. Nonetheless, there was also something rather Zen about Dwan’s interpretation, especially in the play’s early moments. Confident and commanding, her Winnie seemed in control of her otherwise intractable situation. Whether tenderly caressing her bag, luxuriating in her half-quotations from literary classics, or berating the uncouth Willie (performed by Simon Wolfe), Winnie found support and strength in her various preoccupations.

Throughout the first act, Dwan’s Irish delivery had an unmistakably rhythmic thrust that intensified the music of Beckett’s writing. At some point, [End Page 559]

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Lisa Dwan (Winnie) in Happy Days. (Photo: Helen Maybanks.)

[End Page 560]

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Lisa Dwan (Winnie) in Happy Days. (Photo: Helen Maybanks.)

Winnie remarks of having the feeling that if she were not confined “in this way,” she “would simply float up into the blue.” The same could also be said of Winnie’s speech as voiced by Dwan: for it also exuded the sense of being on the verge of breaking into a hypnotic melody. Because Dwan frequently changed her register, tone, and pace, this demanding quasi-monologue never felt tedious. Her two narrations of the Shower/Cooker story were particularly gripping with their nuanced recreation of external voices and their intimation of the narrated event’s blurring of fact and fiction. When Dwan’s speech became a touch declamatory, one could feel that she was earnestly attempting to leave a vocal imprint on the world and elicit Willie’s attention and response.

Winnie’s upper-body kinetics, a central...


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