Riverside Studios is a fantastic venue. The staff are incredibly welcoming, so it was easy to forgive an incident with a glass of Prosecco that I won’t dwell on; let’s just say as a fellow clumsy person I sympathised! There are also a huge number of toilets (something I always appreciate) and the entire venue felt clean with covid measures clearly in place. The theatre itself is in what use to be a BBC TV studio before becoming an arts centre in the 70s, with shiny black floors and huge lighting rigs above our heads. Function room chairs are laid out in pairs, all safely distanced from each other. This works well for the show, providing a wide space to fill with the barren and bleak scene that appears before us as the bells start to toll.
With playwright Samuel Beckett and director Trevor Nunn’s names on the poster, you know you’re in for a night of iconic theatre. Happy Days often appears in lists of the best plays and, although much of it left me bemused, It’s hard not to agree. Writing this review the morning after, Beckett’s words and images are still flying around in my head.
There’s no sugar coating it though, this is a tough watch, in terms of subject matter, staging, and the play text itself. But then it shouldn’t be comfortable. I usually wait until a review is finished before checking online, but on the bus home I felt compelled to understand more about what I had just witnessed. I was reassured to find that Beckett himself suggested that the play be full of ambiguity, and of unanswered questions.
For anyone who has studied plays at school or beyond, it’s easy to see why this play has been so frequently dissected. It’s full of imagery and symbols, and although this can make it hard to follow at first, after a while the language smothers you and it becomes an all-consuming experience. I wouldn’t proclaim that I fully understood it all, yet some people were obviously avid Beckett fans, guffawing at every opportunity – perhaps to highlight to the rest of the audience how well they knew this complex and intriguing text.
The staging is incredibly effective. The width of the room allows the stage to appear very wide and narrow, with a seemingly endless landscape of barren earth and dust. As the rest of the space is pitch black, at times it was like watching a film and you had to remind yourself that it is in fact live theatre.
Lisa Dwan as Winnie is spectacular. It’s one of those parts that every actress aspires to and her performance gives justice to such an intimidating role. She’s engaging throughout – one woman in a hole for an hour and a half could be very boring if it weren’t for Beckett’s intriguing language, Nunn’s innovative direction and Dwan’s stunning performance.
I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed the play. Both my friend and I said we felt overwhelmed from the very start to the finish. But it cannot be denied that this is a startlingly intense production and certainly had us dissecting our understanding of it on our walk back to the bus station. As I fell asleep that night, I could see the haunting image of Winnie up to her neck in the earth burned onto my retina.
Written by: Samuel Beckett
Directed by: Trevor Nunn
Produced by: Anthology Theatre
Happy Days is Playing until Sunday 25 July. Further information and booking via the below link.