Arts Theatre, London WC2
Opened 18 November, 2003

"Expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound. Gentle slopes down to front and either side of stage." That's how the set is described in the text of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. Not "Expressionist spiral of scorched grass, almost perpendicular to stage, slightly concave towards its centre, with ribbons of blue sky above and below." But that's how Lucy Hall has designed her father Sir Peter's production of the play, now at the Arts Theatre: a cross between a solid whirlpool and the cover of Mike Oldfield's Hergest Ridge album. Now, a reviewer should always think long and hard before declaring something to be plain wrong, rather than just a bad decision. But this is wrong. Beckett was notoriously precise about all aspects of his plays, and his estate guards that vision with a fierce tenacity. For someone who worked closely with the author for his 1974 production of the play, Peter Hall should know better.

It's also strange that Hall should use such an abstract design when the central performance is so distinctly human and natural. As far as someone can be natural, of course, when the dramatic situation is being buried "up to her diddies in the bleeding ground"... or, in this case, embedded at the centre of the spiral.

Felicity Kendal shows us the various emotions behind Winnie's attempts to see herself through each day: the resolve, the construction of routines, the happiness at finding a "riff" of words or ideas she can play on, and the continuing feelings for her husband Willie, scarcely visible at the edge of the mound/spiral. Also, especially in the much shorter second act when only Winnie's head is above ground, the increasing difficulty of staving off hysteria or despair. Usual Beckett territory, in short, to which Kendal gives more intimate and feeling voice than is usual in the role.

The trouble is that I think this, too, is a mistake. Her delivery loses almost all the rhythm of Beckett's writing, and by putting a recognisable, warm individual at the centre of this whirling artscape, makes us likelier to question the play's strategy. The more usual Happy Days combination of a semi-natural person in a semi-natural setting simply works better than this odd, both-extremes-at-once approach of Hall's.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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