Samuel Beckett's bitterly sardonic comedy Happy Days has always been a play more to appreciate than to enjoy. Here starring Fiona Shaw, it's the one about Winnie, the woman who lives buried first to her waist and then, in the second half, to her neck. Adding insult to injury, her endless chatter is studiously ignored by her almost entirely mute and unseen husband. It's a bleak vision of a woman trying to keep her spirits up in the face of everlasting extinction. It is theatrically sanctioned despair with a drink in the interval.
What's different here is that Deborah Warner's production does its best to wriggle free of the notorious, Stalin-like constraints of the Beckett estate, by cunningly expanding on Beckett's strict prescriptions. So, the barren, featureless landscape he orders here becomes a gloriously disproportionate bomb site - Afghanistan or Iraq after the blitzkrieg. There is even a touch of Ground Zero about Tom Pye's design, which is an arena or rubble. It is certainly overwhelmingly hostile to the single actress and her barely seen husband. It is desolation given military proportions.
But the single most extravagant intervention in Beckett's play is that made by Shaw herself, taking on one of Beckett's most uncomfortable roles. Dogged, yet with a breezy lightness of touch, she enfuses the character with her own cheeky personality. Although Shaw projects powerfully, her voice is also as sensitive as her movement is vigorous. She even finds a melody in the writing that most English performers miss and render merely stiff and atonal.
It is of course a huge boon that Shaw's native Irish accent is entirely suited to the cadence of Beckett's language. So, as Winnie staves off first boredom and then the fear of senselessness death, Shaw manages to be girly, fun and flirtatious. She may be showing off ever so slightly, but she completely engages the audience's sympathy. There are those who prefer their Beckett with harder edges, dissected by a more ascetic sensibility, but Shaw is most people's best chance of enjoying an otherwise comfortless parable.