“Another heavenly day,” chimes Felicity Kendal’s Winnie on cue at the start of Peter Hall’s very nearly heavenly West End revival of “Happy Days,” and the first thing one registers is the actress’s new vocal timbre. It’s not just the gentle Irish lilt that catches you off-guard, coming from this most English of performers. Whereas Kendal has made a distinguished theater and, particularly, TV career out of exactly the sort of chirpy winsomeness that Winnie’s opening line would indicate, her voice here sounds flintier, even deeper, its cooing qualities entirely gone. In its place is a newfound cool and determination that have all but liberated Kendal, even as the character she is playing is trapped up to her waist and then her neck in earth: an image of entombment allowing, however paradoxically, for this actress’s profound release.
Kendal was first mentioned following the departure from the project of the originally intended lead, Brenda Blethyn. The shift in casting seemed to have all eyes on the box office and very little on suitability or common sense. But it’s the happy way of the theater to confound expectation. Kendal, giving the performance of her career, more than does so here.
Of the handful of Winnies I’ve seen, Irene Worth was throatier and more regal and Rosaleen Linehan caught Samuel Beckett’s Celtic lilt more exactly. (Peter Hall first directed the late Peggy Ashcroft in this role 28 years ago.) But Kendal’s is in some ways the most complete — witty and intellectually spry, at once desperate and despairing, her chattering into the void a gallant if ultimately hollow victory, insofar as what Winnie calls “earth, you old extinguisher” sits ready to swallow her up.
That’s literally the sense one gets from the radical design by Lucy Hall, daughter of director Peter, which reimagines the landscape of this 1961 play to vigorous effect (though Beckett purists ought to be forewarned). Instead of the specified mound of earth atop which Winnie’s head pokes out like a beaming emblem of absurdism, Lucy Hall’s angled set consists of a circular pathway of scorched earth that seems to be sucking Winnie in, as if all the preening and fussing in the world — and Winnie does a lot of both — can’t stave off the centrifugal force pulling us all daily toward extinction. As Paul Pyant’s lighting beats down on Winnie, the parched landscape gives her spoken cheer the lie.
Like so much Beckett, “Happy Days” can be seen as an exercise in avoidance, an attempt to forestall the inevitable, which is to say death, in whatever way possible. Winnie’s immediate salvation is a capacious bag, from which she produces, among other things, a revolver that she greets with a huge embrace. (Tellingly, the parasol that in this play famously goes up in smoke looks already scorched from our first glimpse of it.)
Denied the use of her arms in act two, Winnie can still chat at (one can hardly say “with”) her companion Willie (a courtly Col Farrell), who spends much of the play with his back to her (and to the audience), head covered by the same cloth with which he at one point rather musically blows his nose.
“Was I ever lovable?” Winnie asks, but it’s the nature of Beckett not to grant an answer. Instead, her outpourings are interrupted by a piercing alarm bell that becomes more and more frequent. “What’s the alternative” to speech, Winnie asks, as if in alarm herself, but she is too smart not to know the answer: the great stretch of silence of which she lives in fear.
Kendal looks terrific, cutting perhaps the most beautiful tragic heroine the West End has seen since Jessica Lange’s Mary Tyrone, which is important since Beckett, like O’Neill, writes ripely sexual women. (Not for nothing does Winnie talk openly about her breasts.) But what really matters is how Kendal is here able to put her customary pertness to invaluable use. At times she’s truly funny, clutching at the alcoholic spirits that, Winnie gaily reasons, promise “instantaneous improvement.” And she finds the comedy in defeat accompanying Winnie at her most self-aggrandizing.
But more than any Winnie in my experience, Kendal meets head-on this immobile character’s mating dance with madness. In thrall to sounds, not least that of her own voice, Winnie acknowledges “a head always full of cries (that) come and go.” That they are coming more than going can be sensed from her subsequent, and frightening, “I hear cries,” a rendingly simple declaration of a mind caving in as spoken by an actress who, very much against the odds, now owns this play for keeps.