Always look on the bright side of life” has cheerfully served as a signature tune for Monty Python, but it could just as well have been penned for Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.” Buried up to her waist, and ultimately her neck, her demeanor remains unstintingly positive. That’s certainly the watchword for the start of Fiona Shaw’s immensely detailed interpretation in Deborah Warner’s re-imagining of this modern theater classic. Yet despite a judicious calibration of every moment, word and image, the production fails to engender pathos.
The last thing anyone could accuse Warner of is taking the play for granted. A decade ago, the Beckett estate closed down her production of “Footfalls” because it ignored some of Becket’s famously precise stage directions. Here, her reworking is more about shifting aud’s perspective on the piece than intruding upon a hallowed text.
The play has previously been presented neutrally, with the set functioning metaphorically. For this production, however, auds discover the vast Lyttelton stage stripped to the side and back walls by designer Tom Pye to present a new vision of Beckett’s “scorched grass.”
Pye and lighting designer Jean Kalman have created an unforgiving, post-apocalyptic environment of shattered concrete, dust and rubble blasted with hard, evenly distributed light. In addition, auds enter to the unremitting thunder of industrial noise. The effect is to present Winnie and her largely unseen and silent husband, Willie (Tim Potter), as possibly sole survivors of an unspecified attack or accident.
This is the decisive first step in a specific repositioning of the play. The idea is followed through in the central performance. Toward the beginning, Winnie’s fascination with her toothbrush is accompanied by an obsessive checking of the state of her teeth. Then, in the second act, where this Winnie is literally older and more damaged, she is presented with newly blackened teeth. This shift is logical, but it changes the intent of the piece. Winnie’s antics now are more literal, where previously they were metaphorical.
Initially girlish and skittish, Shaw polishes each phrase with an individual attitude, self-consciously presenting each line like a piece of highly worked embroidery. In the second act, she grows increasingly fraught, her voice quivering with emotion and her cries to her struggling husband moving closer to desperation.
Crucially, however, she reveals Winnie as a woman located in place and time who understands what’s happening to her. That knowingness allows for a degree of ironic, bitter comedy, but it robs the piece of Winnie’s stout, heartbreaking refusal to recognize what’s going on.
In a great performance, that stoicism should make auds weep. This knowingness is likely to leave everyone dry-eyed.
That degree of self-consciousness extends to the production as a whole. Warner’s chosen intermission music? None other than the theme tune to TV’s own “Happy Days” — yes, the one starring Henry Winkler as the Fonz.
Ultimately, the omniscient production proves that whereas in life a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, in drama it’s self-knowledge that’s the problem. With everything explained and all the allusions so deliberately laid out, auds are left with little to discover for themselves. All they can do is sit back and admire. Undeniably fascinating, it is fatally unengaging.