Beckett sa Chreig: Laethanta Sona/
Beckett in the Rock: Happy Days
Creig an Staic, Inis Oirr
Galway International Arts Festival
"Trompe-l'oeil backcloth to represent unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance," Samuel Beckett's stage directions say. Here no backcloth to represent but the very thing. As Yeats told Synge to go to Aran, Beckett sa Chreig: Laethanta Sona/Beckett in the Rock: Happy Days, produced by Company SJ and directed by Sarah Jane Scaife, is immersed in the landscape and language of Inis Oírr.
Having assembled at Áras Éanna, the audience proceed together, walking between high stone walls, anticipation building, to see for ourselves the limestone mound already iconic from its image subtly reproduced in monochrome on a full page on the back of the programme notes.
Seated on blocks of stone placed in a chequerboard pattern, made by the island men who constructed the mound designed by Ger Clancy, we wait for Winnie to wake. No colour is specified for Winnie’s parasol. In this production it is red, like the skirts still generally worn by women on the island when this play was written.
Of Winnie’s dress we only see the low bodice, the fabric chosen by Sinéad Cuthbert for the rare flowers that grow in the fissures between the flagstones, on which and out of which the mound is constructed. Not the low mound of stage directions but just the right size, just the right slope, to make an impact on the landscape and to support Winnie, her head resting on her bare arms.
The play’s theme, the need for everyone’s voice to be heard, takes on a new meaning when a major work is heard in the language of the people where it is performed. The dialect, in Mícheál Ó Conghaile’s translation performed by Bríd Ní Neachtain, both of them from Connemara, soars. The everyday phrases echo and reverberate.
As the crowd disperse and walk back, island women say they heard themselves in Winnie. International Beckett scholars and practitioners with no Irish say they wept, have never been so moved by the second act, the music box, the song.
The last of Beckett’s four major dramatic works, after Waiting for Godot (1952), Endgame (1957) and Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Happy Days (1961) is the only one of these with a woman in a main part, and what a part. Winnie’s range of feeling is conveyed here not only in words but also in balletic movement and infinitely varying intonation, even in how she says the name Willie.
Played by Raymond Keane, mostly silent, mostly off stage, Willie’s appearance, wearing a seaside straw hat in the first act, a theatrical top hat in the second, his voice grunting, reading or very occasionally answering, heartbreakingly illustrates a loneliness that cannot be cured.
"I have measured everything with it since," Derek Mahon wrote, remembering limestone in sea light after visiting Inis Oírr. Future Happy Days and Winnies will be measured against this production and performance. A daring, bold vision, brilliantly realised.
Runs as part of Galway International Arts Festival until Sunday, September 5th, then moves indoors to run at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival, from October 15th to 17th