May 18, 1991

Happy Days is Here Again

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


The State Theatre production of Beckett’s Happy Days opens in the Playhouse next week. Murray Bramwell talks with director Simon Phillips and actor Ruth Cracknell about the play and its buried meanings.

It is more than forty years since Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot, a play which was so famous that it became synonymous with 20th century theatre. Beckett himself, immortalised by photographers like Jane Bown, became a craggy icon whose very reclusiveness attracted persistent public attention. His plays, with their tramps, rubbish bins and precisely annotated pessimism, acquired a reputation as being brainy and difficult.

Since Beckett’s death in 1989 there has been a revival of interest in his work and a recognition that his plays were, after all, written to be performed. It has been a very long time since Beckett has been seen on mainstages in Australia and Wayne Harrison, Artistic Director at the Sydney Theatre Company, has broken the drought by inviting Simon Phillips to direct Ruth Cracknell and Alan Penney in Happy Days. The result is a joint venture with the State Theatre Company which begins a two week run in Adelaide starting next Saturday followed by eight weeks at Sydney’s Wharf theatre.

=Simon Phillips describes Happy Days as a “major classic work” but concedes that some might be wary of it.
“I think Beckett would still be considered a difficult writer by audiences only because he deals with themes which are enormously broad and he deals with `the human condition’ rather than relationships , he doesn’t exclude them, but he isn’t interested in presenting recognisable daily lives.

“Obviously people used to the accessibility of soap opera are not going to find Beckett’s imagery, and the density and complexity of language he offers, immediately easy to deal with. That said, one of the wonderful things about Happy Days in particular is that it deals with extraordinarily recognisable behaviour in an absolutely extraordinary situation.. It is a metaphor, as Beckett’s plays are- but you see this woman behaving in ways that are immediately recognisable to anybody who’s lived an ordinary life in the suburbs.”

Beckett wrote Happy Days in 1961, much of it in the Bristol Hotel in Folkestone where, registered under an assumed name, he waited out the fourteen days residency required by English law before he could marry his life companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. The relationship was by this time a desultory one but Beckett, determined that Suzanne should be his executor and heir, proceeded with the marriage. While there is nothing autobiographical about Happy Days, the isolation and separate torments of Winnie and Willie are not entirely dissimilar.

Like many of Beckett’s theatre works, Happy Days has a single, self-explanatory image. Winnie, a woman in her fifties is buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. Her husband, Willie, a man of many fewer words, is also half way to the grave, tucked further away from audience view. By Act Two, Winnie is buried up to her neck , still irrepressibly talking her head off.

Of Winnie, the cheery soul, Phillips observes- “Happy Days is about doing and saying. These are the two main props this woman has to keep her mind off her mind. She gets to a point in the play when she says -`I can do no more, fortunately I’m in tongue again.’ She runs out of things to do but then her voice takes over. One of the primary agonies of the play is to watch these resources run dry.”

What then, of the view that Beckett is defeatist and depressing ? Simon Phillips is quick to reply – “I don’t think that’s so. Although it does depend how you are feeling that night, or that morning ! I would say that Beckett examines the human resilience in finding meaning in a meaningless world. If you concentrate on the last part of that, he does seem to believe that life is absurd, that there is no meaning, that you are born and then you die. That’s depressing. But what he actually does is depict beings dealing with that emptiness with enormous resources. There are many figures in his work who are really bleak but Winnie isn’t one of them.”

Phillips is full of admiration for the stagecraft of the play. “Beckett is the most rewarding playwright bar none. He weaves complex ideas and careful themes into his text with unwavering accuracy. You can dissect every moment and connect it to another moment . There is not a word that hasn’t been considered.”

Designer Mary Moore has had the challenging task of creating a set which will serve both the Playhouse and the much smaller thrust stage at the Wharf.
“Mary and I were looking for a way of framing the reality of the situation in artifice,” Phillips explains, “Obviously we are dealing with an abstract idea but the reality of it would be extraordinary. It would be a wonderful play to perform on the beach. I think it is important that the audience can relate to the essence of Winnie’s predicament so they don’t just feel they are looking at an actor poked into a pile of papier mache, that they can relate to the idea that this woman is embedded in earth. But the set also concedes that the theatre is not reality, it is an exercise in artifice.”

The demands on actors are considerable to say the least. Ruth Cracknell, who has recently toured extensively with Lettice and Lovage and The Importance of Being Earnest, has been heard to use the word torture.

“On the first day we made a mistake,” she recalls. “As you know, in Act One it is only up to my waist and when we are playing we are only there for an hour. But in rehearsal we were concentrating for a long time without thinking to take a break and when I finally got out I nearly collapsed. We now take what we call our `mound breaks’.”

There is also a production assistant on hand to provide massage for the actors -“We’ve made good use of her, it has been essential.” Of the second act, when she is required to perform buried up to her neck, Ruth Cracknell is diplomatically brief -“All I can say is that it is only half an hour ! But I have comforted myself with the thought that Peggy Ashcroft did it and survived.”

Ruth is full of admiration for the play – this, as for Simon Phillips, is her first crack at a Beckett production. Aware that the role of Winnie is one that many of her legion of admirers will find different from her hallmark performances, she hopes that they will nevertheless come to the show to be “absolutely stretched – and at the same time entertained.”

“We certainly won’t duck any of the moments which seem on the page to be sheer vaudeville. There are not many of them, but they are there and should be gone for. The comedy is certainly there but then, ten layers under the comedy …” Ruth Cracknell gestures something more unfathomable.

Like Phillips she emphasises that while dense, there is nothing woolly about the text. “It is like a piece of music which is limited by the bars, the crotchets and quavers. You can’t, in certain kinds of music, muck about too much. You are not in free form and you are very much governed by how the composer has noted it
down. It is very like that with Beckett. But as a performer you still have to discover how to make it breathe.”
Both Ruth Cracknell and her director are enthused by the project – and both express the same hope that audiences will take the punt.

As Simon Phillips observes- “There is a commitment you have to make to jump into cold water or out of a plane with a parachute. It is exhilarating- but you know you have to come out of the comfortable equilibrium you are already in. Once you’ve made that commitment to the water, as it were, you can’t imagine not jumping in the first place. Beckett is always a bit daunting – but if you’ve never seen one of his plays before, Happy Days is the one to start with.”e essence of Winnie’s predicament so they don’t just feel they are looking at an actor poked into a pile of papier mache.

“Happy Days is here again” The Advertiser, May 18, 1991, p.10.

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