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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at BAM Harvey Theater

By Bernard Carragher

  Fiona Shaw/PH:Richard Termine

Recently at BAM, courtesy of the National Theater of Great Britain, the extraordinary Irish actress Fiona Shaw and the gifted director Deborah Warner presented a new production of Samuel Beckett's bleakly beautiful masterpiece Happy Days.

Their staging in no way distorted Beckett's original intentions yet shed new light on this 1961 work giving it a pertinent, contemporary feel. Having seen several productions of the play with Beckett's fated heroine Winnie, acted by superb actresses, Happy Days always seemed to me to be a play mired in its time with Winnie a bourgeois housewife of the period - slightly dowdy, with a fondness for funny hats and a bit daft, chattering non-stop. The critic, Kenneth Tynan, felt that Happy Days could be viewed as a feminine counterpart of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

Ms. Shaw brings a new sensibility to the role: her Winnie is a smart, liberated woman of today from the minute Beckett's piercing bell wakes her up and she looks at the sky and exclaims Another heavenly day! Shoulders poised, chin thrust forward, she is a woman of strength, I thought of Margaret Thatcher, only prettier, and more attractive. Ms. Shaw said in a recent interview that while working on the role she had in mind a glamorous friend, a British publishing executive. Adding: I don't think 1950's housewives do it for us anymore. Ms. Shaw herself reaches age 50 this July.

No matter how confident her Winnie is she is still stuck buried in a hillock up to her waist in act one and to her neck in the second half.

Like most of Beckett's plays this Happy Days is set on a barren wasteland. Scenic designer Tom Pye has filled BAM's large Harvey Theater stage with tons of fractured concrete and rubble making it look like a post-apocalyptic terrain, unreal as the mountains of the moon.

On this deserted strand Winnie stands, caught in the grip of nature. Her garb, at least from the waist up is appropriate for a blazing hot summer day: black sundress, string of beads, and a sunhat - no silly chapeaux for this Winnie. At her side there is a parasol and a large black reticule, which seems to contain all her belongings including a pistol. She speaks eloquently, there are few actresses on the stage today who speak the language more beautifully than Ms. Shaw. She makes Winnie flirtatious, funny, and, of course, a compulsive optimist. She speaks directly to us the audience, and to Willie - played by Tim Potter, who is obviously her husband. He lives in a burrow somewhere below her. He eventually comes out, and sits with his back to the audience, his head covered with a handkerchief and a straw hat against the sun. He reads to Winnie - want ads and obits from an old newspaper and shows her a pornographic picture.

Winnie is doomed to die- her hillock will become her tomb. She will be dragged down like quicksand. For all her cheerfulness Winnie is well aware of her fate. Yet like Ms. Shaw she is a good actress.

Ms. Shaw lets her hopefulness dominate the play's first half, making the fright she feels in act two all the more poignant.

Willie speaks most of the time in mumbles and grunts - the play is largely a soliloquy for Winnie. But towards the end when it becomes apparent to Willie that Winnie has not much longer to live, when her mind and memory are beginning to fail, he tries to crawl on his hands and knees to make a futile attempt to rescue her.

Happy Days is a parable of a man and a woman at the end of their life, facing the inevitable with any dignity they can muster up.

What Ms. Shaw and Ms. Warner have done with this exemplary production of Happy Days is to make it newly relevant for twenty-first century audiences, while also preserving the odd magnificence and grandeur o


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