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Happy Days review – Lisa Dwan swings from laughter to gothic gravity

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/06/2021 Arifa Akbar

When Peggy Ashcroft played Winnie at the National Theatre, she likened the experience to “climbing Everest”. The resilient central character of Happy Days, equanimous even while trapped in a mound of earth, was also played by Billie Whitelaw under the direction of Samuel Beckett himself. Now Lisa Dwan, once mentored by Whitelaw, scales this Everest of a role in Trevor Nunn’s production at Riverside Studios, which marks the 60th anniversary of the play.

Robert Jones’s set gives the illusion of a cinema screen: long, flat and seemingly elevated with a painted backdrop of brown, streaked sky. His staging is a clever surprise, reminding us of how the play borrows elements from cinematography.

Dwan at first appears tiny in this vast, post-apocalyptic terrain but grows bigger and more vital in her role. This is Dwan and Nunn’s third recent collaboration; they worked together on Nunn’s Beckett Triple Bill at the Jermyn Street theatre, London, and on Colm Tóibín’s reworking of Antigone in Pale Sister, filmed by the BBC, both to sensational effect. She is a fresh-faced, buoyant and wryly stoic Winnie, who channels 1950s glamour in red lipstick and a black strappy dress, and oozes charm in the first half.

In an almost entirely static play that demands everything from its central actor, Dwan’s extraordinary vocal range gives this production its drama. Her Winnie seems to contain many internal voices as she quotes snatches of half-remembered Yeats, Shakespeare and the Psalms, or rehearses long-ago conversations and throws out questions to the laconic Willie (Simon Wolfe).

Fiona Shaw, who performed the role in 2007, spoke of the inadvertent poeticism of Winnie’s Irish idiom and Dwan gives the language musicality as well as poetry. Her tone soars, in high mood, and then suddenly swoops to a dark memory, her voice choked. “Was I ever lovable, Willie?” she asks, quickly followed by: “Forgive me, Willie, sorrow keeps breaking in.” The momentary plunges into hopelessness are heart-stopping and Dwan steers herself back to cheerfulness perhaps a little too quickly.

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Wolfe, as Willie, brings physical comedy to an otherwise faceless part. Here, he is like a silent straight man in a music-hall double act. Their relationship plays out not in sad disconnections and silences but as eyeball-rolling marital comedy edged with domestic resentment, with some of the dialogue sounding like punchlines. The first half stays resolutely playful in tone and is entertaining, and little threat is felt over the mysterious force that is dragging Winnie into the mud.

Related: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is turning 60. Its image of a trapped woman is as potent as ever

The second half brings a stark contrast; Winnie is not only buried neck deep but is ashen, deathly, almost unrecognisable. The pitch and pace of Dwan’s voice changes radically, too, so that Winnie looks and sounds like an altogether different, gothic version of the character. Johnny Edwards’ subtle and atmospheric sound design seems to capture the buzzing sound of air, which adds to the ghostly effect. Winnie’s voice is sometimes shrill and streaming with fear as she calls out for Willie. At other times it sounds hollow, with the hint of an echo, as if she were already dead.

The fear and foreboding of the second half never quite feel sufficiently full-bodied, perhaps because of the big shift in tone from the first. Dwan’s performance is compelling, but there is the sense that there is a weightier, more potent Winnie lying further down, deep within her.


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