To have one stellar Samuel Beckett revival is always a treat, but to have two at the same time is cause for celebration. The Young Vic plays host to Beckett’s iconic Happy Days, in which Juliet Stevenson is buried up to her waist in some sandy form of hell, whilst the Royal Court (followed by a brief stint at the Duchess) stages a trilogy of Beckett’s one-women shorts. Beckett’s writing for women has always been extraordinary, and these two productions do more than justice to his bringing poetry to ordinary people, and surreality to mundanity.
Winnie, the protagonist of Happy Days, has been called the female Lear, and though the role must be as great a challenge to Juliet Stevenson as Shakespeare’s King is currently to Simon Russell Beale, what makes Stevenson’s performance particularly distinctive is the normality which she brings to the role. She brings a strange optimism, however forced – her voice may not crack when she states with sincerity, “this will be another happy day,” but her face gives away her fear. Stevenson’s performance is delightfully girl-next-door in her ordinary mannerisms and attitude to life, and thus seems at odds to her hellish situation. Her performance and this production eloquently tackle a soul capable, just about, of coping in a living hell. Natalie Abrahami’s production features a stunning set (by Vicki Mortimer) which literalises Winnie’s hell in a striking way, and with its almost mechanical lights and sounds there is little humanity other than that brought by Stevenson. Her stoicism against her hell and inhuman life make for a fantastic watch.
However, Walter Asmus’ production of three one woman plays, with Lisa Dwan leading all – Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby – is one of the most unique evenings of theatre likely to be seen this year. They may be performed in profound darkness, but that is nothing compared to the dark depths of the psyche and soul which they plumb. Watching Dwan’s ghostly presence wander to her disembodied in Footfalls is hypnotic. The conclusion of the evening, Rockaby, has a profound sense of finality, as if in watching the deceleration of the voice we are experiencing Dwan’s final moments. The opening piece, Not I, is possibly Beckett’s most astonishing piece, in which nothing is visible but a babbling mouth with words aggressively thrown into the dark chasm of the theatre. In 9 minutes Dwan’s voice recites pages in an astonishingly rapid and violent performance.
As a sensory experience it is truly incomparable – Beckett said of the play that he wanted it to “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect” and it is the experience of this violent, incomparable and terrifying situation that makes this striking. Watching Winnie suffer her burial is a spectator sport, but James Farncombe’s lighting, or lack of, forces us to experience our own Beckettian entrapment. Surrounded by darkness with only a mouth permeating it, the play horrifies as a living Francis Bacon painting would. To praise nothing but the staging, however, would be to devalue three of the great performances of the year which, astonishingly, come from one performer. Lisa Dwan’s vocal, physical and emotional versatility is second to none and this showcase of her talents, once the soul has recovered from profound soul-searching, is what shines through from this evening.
Both productions make for brilliant and affecting evenings. Both actresses bring empathy and humanity to their unusual characters. Winnie’s life, as Stevenson plays it, almost feels quotidian, and what distinguishes Beckett’s one-woman shorts is their poetic inanity, which Dwan exemplifies. When compared to the enema for the soul that is Lisa Dwan’s trilogy, Happy Days comes up slightly short: Happy Days leaves its mark, but Dwan’s trilogy bores into the soul. We are lucky to be granted two such brilliant revivals of brilliant plays, with two actresses more than doing justice to one of the finest writers of the 20th Century.