Buried waist deep, then neck deep in a mound of dirt, the role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, now playing in a limited engagement at BAM, is a difficult part for any actress. Fiona Shaw, who gives a superbly nuanced performance under the direction of her longtime collaborator Deborah Warner, brings both humor and sadness to this absurdist classic.
Winnie is often characterized as an eternal optimist, making the best of her grim situation by filling the time with endless chatter and declaring that this is “another happy day.” Certainly, Shaw’s portrayal adheres loosely to this outlook, and yet there’s also a growing sense of discontent that runs underneath her chipper façade. This is seen from the very outset when Winnie is woken up by a loud alarm buzzer. She stretches up, and appears to tug ever so gently at her rocky prison, testing to see if she can escape its confines. When she cannot, she does indeed go about her daily routine with a confident and zestful attitude, but her awareness of her sad predicament has already been firmly established. As she says at one point, “Sorrow keeps breaking in,” no matter how much she tries to prevent it from getting to her.
Shaw’s Winnie is urbanely sophisticate, with a somewhat self-mocking demeanor. Throughout the first act, she frequently strikes glamorous poses in a playful manner, laced with irony. Most importantly, she is charming and extremely funny. She can evoke laughter with a slight change in facial expression or with a seemingly throwaway line. The actress makes such specific choices in both her actions and line delivery that it never seems as if Winnie is prattling on about nothing; her words are her lifeline that gets her through the day.
The only human contact Winnie has is with her husband Willie (Tim Potter), who lives on the other side of the mound. He is barely visible to Winnie, and then only when she twists her body or head so as better to see him. Willie is mostly silent, in contrast to Winnie’s loquaciousness. Potter’s Willie is hornier than most interpretations of the character, and Warner has him masturbating at one point. It should be noted that while this is not explicit in Beckett’s text, it is not actually out of keeping with the lines that Winnie speaks, particularly in regard to a photograph that she takes from her husband that she describes as “genuine pure filth!”
In the second act, when she is buried up to her neck, Winnie’s energy and enthusiasm is much diminished. She seems weary and defeated, prone to drift off to sleep, only to be rudely awakened by the loud alarm buzzer. Willie’s reappearance gives her renewed hope, but the outcome of their reunion remains bleak.
This bleakness is reinforced by the technical elements of the production. Tom Pye’s set design presents a desolate landscape of craggy rocks that sprawls across the entire length of the stage. A large rectangular painting that mirrors the stage environment, but also includes a bit of sky, hangs center stage; behind it, the decaying walls of BAM’s Harvey Theater are plainly visible. Mel Mercier’s score, coupled with Christopher Shutt’s sound design, creates an ominous aural environment. Jean Kalman’s lighting parallels Winnie’s deterioration from the first to the second half of the play. And whoever was responsible for the fiery special effect in the first act did a marvelous job in contributing to the apocalyptic atmosphere. But the real tour-de-force belongs to Shaw.