From its sly design to its adroit star turn, Deborah Warner’s production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” — originally for the National Theater in London, now playing a short season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — bursts with optimism, like some plucky Nebraskan gal who refuses to let the city squash her dreams. It maintains that can-do spirit to the (very) bitter end, revealing a hope too often overlooked in Beckett’s work.
Or at least, it makes hope an option. Beckett is frequently stripped of vitality, with lifeless actors trudging around bleak sets, implying that humanity was defeated before the lights ever rose. But in a fairly literal interpretation of the script, Warner and company invest everything with brio. Because the show is so dynamic, we don’t get easy answers to what it means.
Take Tom Pye’s set, a desert of concrete, rubble and ochre dirt. Last year at the National, critics read the scenery as a post-global-warming wasteland. Maybe, but that ignores the enormous painting hanging upstage, showing a blue sky, hints of sunshine, and what looks like a path leading out of the hellish surroundings.
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The painting is so lovely it could be in your living room. It’s obvious, of course, that it’s fake and there’s no real exit from the badlands, but its very existence is a refusal to concede defeat.
Winnie (Fiona Shaw) has a similar spirit. Buried to her waist in the earth — and in the second act up to her neck — her life consists of performing the same mundane tasks until a bell tells her to sleep. Her limited options include opening her parasol, putting on her hat and talking to her shiftless husband Willie (Tim Potter), but she swears she’s happy with the routine.
Shaw divides Winnie’s attitude into three distinct segments. At first, she performs for our benefit (or for an imagined audience in the desert). Like a party hostess trying to compensate for awkward guests, she exaggerates her movements and diction, as though her clowning will soften the unpleasant landscape. When she “dives” into her enormous black bag to fetch something, she ripples her arms like a literal swimmer. When she pulls out a gun, she gives it a comic double take, as though she had expected to grab a lipstick.
This is Winnie using social grace — a very human invention — as a defense. Her husband, however, has quit society. He mostly just grunts, sleeps, and pleasures himself to pornographic postcards.
Yet Shaw eventually turns her perf in his direction. By the end of act one, Beckett’s language grows more emotional — there’s talk of romance and admiration — and Shaw focuses her energy on wooing her man. Love is her next barrier against nothingness, even if Willie won’t reciprocate.
In act two, Winnie resorts to fury. There’s steel in her eyes that says she’s through being polite. Even when she sings a song in the final moments, something she has said she will only do when it’s time to give up, her voice booms through the theater. Has life defeated Winnie, or has she made the liberating choice to quit on her own terms?
That’s a delicious question, particularly as we see Willie lying prostrate next to her. She might be buried alive, but Winnie still has more grit than he does. Maybe acting human gives us something after all.