Happy Days at Royal Exchange
The Royal Exchange’s production of Beckett’s Happy Days, unusually, holds the audience outside the auditorium until the last few minutes prior to curtain up. Once seated we witness Maxine Peake (Winnie) embedded in a mound of earth reminiscent of a grotesque toilet roll cover doll. As the stage slowly turns, perhaps she is more a human form of the ballet dancer in her jewellery box? Certainly Peake is the jewel here, holding our attention throughout. Almost a cross between Julie Walters and Patricia Routledge, Winnie draws comedy from the most mundane situation, finding what positives she can from her limited world. We learn that she had freedom in the past, but never discover when, or why, she was buried.
Beckett’s script offers little in the way of movement. Winnie – trapped – manoeuvres what she can from waist up, whilst husband Willie (David Crellin), with the freedom to move around and over the mound, chooses inertia and rarely moves beyond his ‘hole’ in the earth, spending most of the first half asleep. The clever staging ensures the audience see all sides of the mound, and becomes even more powerful in the second half as Winnie sinks further into the earth.
The ever-brightening lighting follows the clockwise movement of the stage, illuminating Winnie’s face, but leaving Willie in the shadow, suggesting it is the audience moving – our lives revolving around their stagnating marriage. Winnie cannot escape the light of the sun; later sleep is prevented by a cacophonic bell.
Beckett comments that "Strangeness was the necessary condition of the play— of Winnie’s plight in the play.” It is a surreal evening, raising questions, but offering no answers. However, this is a fascinating production; Peake is mesmerising and her performance alone makes this a happy day indeed.
Royal Exchange Theatre: May 25th- Jun 23rd 2018.Details and tix here.