The National Theatre’s new production of The Plough and the Stars marks the centenary of the Easter Rising, a major event in Irish history that I’m ashamed to say I don’t know very much about. Given its absence in most English curriculum history lessons, I wonder how many of last night’s audience were that well-informed either (at least before they’d read the programme notes).
Luckily Sean O’Casey’s play doesn’t require you to know too much historical detail. It’s not a documentary of the Rising, but a character study of ordinary Dubliners: the patchwork of wit, humour, tragedy, eccentricity and courage that became the backdrop for bloodshed and the historical catalyst for Troubles to follow.
“It’s a big world in here”, so the Young Vic motto says. And it certainly lives up to this mantra in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, as the impressive set sprawls across the stage of the Main House.
Beckett’s 1961 work has split the critics since its première in New York, with even Kenneth Tynan, a champion of Beckett’s work, commenting that it was “a metaphor stretched beyond its capacity”. Yet the play has stood the test of time, with a whole host of actresses including Fiona Shaw and Beckett’s so-called muse, Billie Whitelaw, taking on the challenging role of Winnie — surely one of the most epic parts for women anywhere in theatre. This latest production shows its shine hasn’t tarnished yet, thanks largely to a brilliant performance from the wonderful, and wildly underrated, Juliet Stevenson.
The play was famously written after Beckett’s wife, on seeing his previous work Krapp’s Last Tape, begged him to “write a happy play”. Being Beckett, he didn’t exactly stick to the brief. Happy Days is baffling, funny, moving and fantastically frustrating. There is something incredibly ‘stiff upper lip’ about Stevenson’s very British Winnie who, in the harshest of conditions draws on the smallest details to find happiness in this wilderness. As Beckett himself said, discussing the inspiration behind the play:
“Well I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’d be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree… there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life… And I thought: who would cope with that and go down singing? Only a woman.”
Stevenson really is a revelation in this role. This enduring quality that Beckett saw in the solitary woman (Ok, Willie is there too, but let’s face it — he’s not great company, and it’s evident that Winnie would continue her ramblings with or without him as an audience…) shines through: as she becomes buried deeper and deeper, forgetting even those “unforgettable” lines of great her poetry, her spirit does not fade.
Commanding our attention faultlessly for the entire production, Stevenson negotiates the demanding twists and turns of Beckett’s script, with moments of arresting isolation, wicked humour, and a fierce desire to insist on the positivity of the situation. Laughter comes with shades of poignancy; heartbreak is still accompanied by a chuckle. You’re never on stable ground emotionally, as Stevenson’s performance — and Beckett’s genuinely timeless script — pulls you from one end of the spectrum to another, but always keeping you gripped.
Elsewhere, the harsh lighting (Paule Constable), unforgiving sound (Tom Gibbons) and overwhelming set (Vicki Mortimer) all play their part in creating a strange combination of other-worldliness and complete familiarity. The situation is baffling; yet Winnie is somehow totally relatable. Therein lies the genius of Beckett, of course. As Willie, David Beames’ comic timing brings extra laughs, and his wildly frustrating, painstakingly slow and brilliantly effective attempts to reach Winnie in the climactic moments create tension that fills the space. Natalie Abrahami’s direction pitches it perfectly, giving us classic Beckett that still feels as sharp as the original productions.
In the end, though, the night belongs to the fabulous talent of Juliet Stevenson. While the likes of Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw — all wonderful actresses, there’s no argument there — have become household names for their stage work as much as their screen time, Stevenson appears underrated and under-praised in comparison. At her best in Happy Days, she’s categorically proved herself as one of our best.