Thursday, November 11, 2010

Theatre: Happy Days

My first experience of Beckett was many years ago, when I saw Waiting for Godot. I felt a great deal of sympathy for the main characters - poor, bored Vladimir and Estragon - waiting endlessly and in vain for something to happen. I was not impressed. Would Happy Days change my mind about Beckett? Perhaps I would instead discover that Beckett had just done another cut & paste job on the second act.

The Project Arts Centre website describes this production of Happy Days by Corn Exchange as "an hilarious, luminous and sublime portrayal of human resilience". It's a play about a woman buried in sand; a play about her daily routine; a play about her happy, unhappy days. As in Godot, it's not obvious what's going on, why it's happening, or what underlying meaning or message Beckett intends to convey. Is this just the theatrical equivalent of Lost, one mystery after another with no true purpose or plan except the commercial imperative to keep the audience watching?

No, it isn't. I think I've finally realised how to watch a Beckett play: just take it for exactly and precisely what it is, without forcing meaning or implication or allegory from the play. One of the few very clear and obvious messages from Beckett in Happy Days is that his audiences always demand meaning. Individual elements of the play might well be references or metaphors, but the play as a whole? Damned if I know what it's meant to mean - and perhaps it doesn't mean anything at all, any more than abstract art does. Or for that matter, when Damien Hirst preserved a shark in formaldehyde, did anyone ask "what does it mean?"

Clara Simpson (pictured) as Winnie. Photo by Johnny Savage.

There are two acts. The first was the more lighthearted, and while I enjoyed it I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as "hilarious". The second act though was gripping - Beckett ups the intensity, the tempo, and the contrasts within the scene. There's no plot in the conventional sense, but there's a lot to appreciate and think about.

So: is it worth seeing? That depends entirely what you're looking for in a play. If you want a fun, light-hearted night out full of easy laughs, see something else. (I haven't seen Big Ole Piece Of Cake yet but it's getting good reviews.) However, if you're willing to take a chance and enjoy a play as art instead of purely as entertainment then yes, I would certainly recommend seeing this.

Conclusion: Happy Days is a work of art, and Corn Exchange have framed it beautifully.

Happy Days continues in Project Arts Centre up to and including 20th November. Tickets cost €22/€18. There will be a post-show discussion following the performance on 17 November - I strongly recommend this.

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