Considering this is a Samuel Beckett play about a woman trapped waist deep in rubble and rock, the title of Happy Days may be ironic. But in this superb production it is a beautifully poignant reflection on the struggles of the human spirit against almost impossible obstacles.
With a crackle of white noise and a brilliant flash of light, Happy Days bursts into life. Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) is immovable, stuck in the steep incline of a rocky slope that dominates the auditorium.
Winnie's life is a harsh one. Not just jammed in a desolate landscape, she also has to contend with the heat of the sun relentlessly beating down on her. But through sheer force of will and character, Winnie looks for the joy in all the little things, in her routine and in the company of her husband Willie (David Beames) - all of which bring her happy days.
How she came to be like this, Beckett never reveals. Rather than cursing or ruminating on the incident or the cause of her situation, Winnie passes her long days chatting to herself and her husband - though Willie prefers to stay as mute as possible - and playing with the contents of her large black handbag. Winnie's trappings are literal but of course this resonates with us because of the metaphorical limitations of our own lives.
Beckett monologues are tough, damn tough but Juliet Stevenson makes it seem so easy. She talks almost without interruption for the whole two hour piece. The fears, the insecurities, the reminisces and the laughs all weave, all flow effortlessly together to create the stream of thought that is Beckett's hallmark. And she imbues the text with hope, with despair, with all the emotions of the human spirit. Juliet Stevenson's performance is one of extraordinary skill.
You would think there isn't much to direct in a play about a women embedded in rocks up to her waist with just a black bag and a parasol within arm's reach but there is a very clever use of space and movement in this production. Director Natalie Abrahami wisely keeps Willie elusive, always just out of sight for Winnie, causing her to crane, to stretch constantly to see him.
The set design from Vicki Mortimer is bold and dramatic. Little falls of gravel occasionally roll down the rocky slope, an omen of what's to come. But it's a great twist on the more usual sand-dunes. The desolateness of the bare rocks are more emotive, more troubling.
Every single aspect of this production is flawless - awesome writing, awesome acting, awesome direction, awesome set design, awesome sound... Really, this production is faultless.
This is high concept theatre though. Not everyone is going to relish spending almost two hours listening to a monologue on finding life, the universe and everything in the routine and the mundane. But personally I live for the times when theatre is this brave and this brilliant.
Young Vic Theatre, London
To March 8, 2014