Happy Days (Queensland Theatre Company)
The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio
July 18 – August 15
From its descriptor, “Happy Days” appears somewhat unappealing; the entire play, which was written by Irish, avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett in 1960, revolves around an older lady named Winnie, who, while half-buried by her desolate, apocalyptic environment, meticulously catalogues the contents of her purse (the only object she can reach), while her laconic, rarely-seen-or-heard husband Willie, occasionally crawls out of his hole to read from a tattered old newspaper. In true Beckett style it is a demanding ask for actor and audience alike and clearly an acquired taste, as emphasised by the post-intermission empty seats, for here, all is strange, but also ironically complete with absurdist contemplation and surrealist symbolism.
QTC’s production, of “Happy Days” is a bold one. The action is bordered by a giant frame, (initially curtained with the Australian landscape image of John Gover’s ‘Launceston and the River Tamar’) making it seem like a surrealist artwork of Australian bleakness unpaused for the audience.
When we first meet Winnie (Queensland Theatre icon Carol Burns), she is asleep, her body buried to its waist in a huge mound of arid earth. An invisible alarm clock suddenly sounds to signal the beginning of her day and so she begins her ritual of mundane chores by brushing her teeth and examining the contents of her bag, which contains, among other things, a revolver. Optimistically, in cheery chatter, she bravely assures herself that this will be a happy day. Seeking to fill the hours, she natters away to her husband Willie (Steven Tandyz), reminiscing, commenting and laughing. Rather than being happy in the present, she derives her joy from the past or material objects of distractions.
By Act Two, Winnie has sunk further into the mound so that only her now-immovable head is visible and despite the desperation of her unchanging lot in life, she continues to pronounce it acceptingly as another heavenly day in attempt to preserve her sense of happiness through ignorance and routine.
Although the situation is absurd, there is a simple humanity to Winnie and her haunted reflections, emphasised by her prolonged pauses more than the verbosity of her dialogue delivery. As her words cascade out with cadence, it is clear that what matters to her most is not what they communicate, but rather, that there is someone to listen to them, for although, for most of the play, Willie remains silent and monosyllabic in is his exaggerated disinterest, there is, initially at least, a clear good-naturedness and durability to their rundown relationship.
Burns commands the stage as Winnie and her passion for the show (which she selected as part of the DIVA series showcase of wonderful female artists) is certainly evident in the calibre of her performance. Her animated facial expressions, whether of despair or joy, reflect perfect timing as much as suggestion of feeling, and vocally she achieves remarkable nuance, especially in conveyance of the script’s comical moments and her delicious delivery of lines full of sexual innuendo.
Burns’ magnetic performance is also reinforced by the simple, yet elegant set, atmospheric lighting and intense soundscape. But, beauty in theatre is about isolate moments and in this regard, “Happy Days” certainly delivers, showing how, as Beckett once noted, “life is more silence than action.” This is just one example of the paradox woven so intricately into the show’s fabric as Winnie wanes between optimism and pessimistic in her stoic endurance and fitful frivolity.
Although presented as a face of a tragedy in taking to the extreme the notion that extraordinary things happening to ordinary people is at the essence of good theatre, “Happy Days” conveys a clear allegory of the desire, hopes and aspirations at the core of the human condition. For at the centre of the absurdist play is an ordinary, brave woman, who despite preposterous predicament, conveys loneliness within a long-term relationship. Thanks to Wesley Enoch’s intelligent direction, it is a perfect, provoking representation of absurdist theatre, simultaneously challenging and rewarding and certainly worth a visit to expand your theatre repertoire and come to your own conclusions.
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