The Tower Theatre
Reviewed – 17th April 2019
“Jones and Sullivan have done Beckett justice – a daunting achievement of which many have fallen short”
If you’re not familiar with this Samuel Beckett play, first staged in New York in 1961, it follows the daily routine of Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of earth. She has a bag of little things that help her get through the day: a toothbrush, a hand mirror, makeup, a hat, a music box. She does her best to maintain her cheery demeanour in spite of everything. Winnie’s husband, Willie, is ever-present, but mostly hidden behind the mound. A masterpiece of absurdism, Happy Days is essentially an hour and forty-minute monologue.
To say the play is challenging, both technically and dramatically, is an understatement. An exercise in anti-theatre, it purposefully breaks all the rules: it’s static, without plot, quiet, adagio, and abstruse. These are all pitfalls for theatremakers, but Robert Pennant Jones’s production with Ruth Sullivan (Winnie) transcends. Jones and Sullivan have done Beckett justice – a daunting achievement of which many have fallen short. They’ve beautifully expressed his insight into empty lives, and people starving for genuine connection. The play feels as relevant today as it was sixty years ago.
The set design (Max) is striking – immediately impressive when you enter the space. Where soft earth or sand is normally used for the mound, Max has crafted a dramatic mountain of sharp shale. The ominous black rocks emphasise the harsh and unforgiving nature of Winnie’s imprisonment. The design leans somewhat into the interpretation that the play’s setting could be Hell.
Peggy Ashcroft, a famous former Winnie, once described the role as “the Hamlet for female actors.” Ruth Sullivan’s performance is as exceptional as the part demands. She expertly plays the veneer of chipper positivity over a profound sadness – the desperate strain beneath Winnie’s apparently breezy attempts to communicate with Willie (Ian Hoare). With the lightest touch, she allows us glimpses into the vastness of Winnie’s loneliness. Tears pool in her eyes before she pulls back with an apologetic smile and sigh: “Oh well… Mustn’t complain…” Sullivan portrays an intellectual, curious, loving woman deprived of stimulation. Neglected. Her joy at the smallest shred of acknowledgement is heart-breaking. Her vulnerability is devastating.
Sullivan’s flawless timing shows a deep sense for the rhythms of Beckett’s language. Her characterisation is so natural it ideally contrasts with the bizarreness of her situation. A dense, enigmatic, nearly two-hour monologue dares an audience not to be bored. But Sullivan is captivating. She lifts the lines, bringing out the poetry in Beckett’s writing. Winnie is delightful, silly, and endearing. She is also acutely suffering, and holding back oceans of anguish. Sullivan’s ability to communicate all of this, while stuck in place from the waist (and later neck) down, is marvellous.
If you’re a Beckett fan, do not miss this show. If you’re new to Beckett, grab this opportunity to discover his genius. Sullivan’s superlative performance deserves a packed house. It’s one you won’t forget.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by David Sprecher and Robert Piwko
Tower Theatre until 20th April
Previously reviewed at this venue: