Revealing new details in a stunning production of 'Happy Days'

 

CULTURESHOCK: Deborah Warner's direction and Fiona Shaw's performance offer a wonderful example of the multiple possibilities of Beckett's text

THERE IS SOME deliciously Beckettian joke implicit in the very fact that Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner are at the Abbey this month with their stunning production of Happy Days. In 1994, after a production of Beckett's Footfalls on the West End, they were allegedly "banned for life" by the Beckett estate. Given that Happy Daysis itself, among other things, a vision of Hell, it is rather apt that some of their afterlife should be spent there. But, to torture the theological metaphor a little more, the experience is much more like that of Purgatory. With Happy Days, Shaw and Warner have purged their sins and emerged in a state of grace that is, for theatre-goers, absolutely divine.

That production of Footfalls was stopped by the Beckett estate because it departed too radically from his text and stage directions. It cut five lines from the text (a more radical move than it sounds - the text is just five pages long), had Shaw moving freely around the stage rather than pacing in the strictly controlled way that Beckett wanted and put her in a red dress rather than a "grey wrap".

The dispute encapsulated the dilemma of Beckett productions after the great man's death. It was easy to sympathise with both sides. On the one hand, as perhaps the finest actor/director team in world theatre, Shaw and Warner had earned the right to explore a text and find a production they believed in. On the other, the delicacy of a piece like Footfalls, its precise minimalism and reliance on the accumulation of tiny moments, means that such radical interventions fundamentally altered the authorship of the work. It was no longer Beckett's play.

Rows like this don't usually have good outcomes, but, albeit after almost a decade-and-a-half, this one has given birth to an epochal production. This Happy Daysisn't just a superb piece of theatre in itself. It is also an exemplary resolution of the contemporary Beckett problem. It suggests that there can be a fruitful compromise between, on the one hand, the Beckett estate, and its genuine need to safeguard a great writer's legacy and, on the other, the need of theatre artists like Shaw and Warner to be creators rather than mere interpreters. The point is not that there is no tension between one imperative and the other but that the tension can be, as it is here, genuinely creative.

You can see what's happening in the first moments of this production. For a start, there's Tom Pye's set. Winnie is not stuck in an "expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound". The mound is very high and it is set in the middle of an expanse of shattered concrete, suggesting a ruined city rather than a desert. The backdrop is not a vibrantly blue trompe-l'oeilsky but a framed painting of a desert landscape. The effect is not, as Beckett wanted, "maximum of simplicity and symmetry". It is deliberately complex and asymmetrical. The impression created in many of the classic productions, of Winnie as a kind of earth mother, with the mound almost serving as a skirt, is completely shunned.

And as soon as Shaw's Winnie wakes to the light, she is full of business. She moves her arms in grand actorly poses. She pushes down on the side of the mound to see if she can move. She fixes her hair. She hums the theme tune from The Archers. From the beginning, her Winnie is deliberately elaborate and extravagant. But this self-consciously baroque element in the performance is balanced by the directness of the production.

The high mound, especially in the Abbey's new raked auditorium, places much of the audience at her eye level, making her forcefully real. The broken concrete banishes any romance that a fictional wasteland might have. Shaw's accent and mannerisms are pure Montenotte, giving Winnie's ornate persona a homely quality, and making her less of a twittering 1950s housewife and more of a confident, witty ironist. The second act, often played very slowly to emphasise all Beckett's pauses, is taken at a crisp, breezy pace. Up-front theatricality and an almost naturalistic style rub up against each other, creating an effect that is very different from the almost ritualistic simplicity that Beckett seems to have imagined.

Yet all of this takes place within a context of overall faithfulness to the text. There is not a hint of capriciousness in Warner and Shaw's approach to the play. The Beckett estate has clearly learned from the Footfallsdebacle and is now willing to tolerate creative elaborations and explorations. But Warner and Shaw seemed to have learned something too - the possible rewards of confinement.

There is something nice about the parallel between the play and the production. Just as Winnie's freedom of movement is progressively closed down but her imagination remains alive, so Warner and Shaw find the great richness that is to be had from small movements around a fixed point. As Winnie constantly reminds herself, the less that can be done, the more important it is to do it. Precise details, like Winnie's blackened teeth in the second act, take on immense potency.

The effect of this balance of confinement and freedom is a performance in which every moment has been scrutinised and calibrated for its exact effect.

Warner and Shaw are still creating and inventing rather than just interpreting, but the creativity lies in the quality of the attention paid to the multiple possibilities of Beckett's text. They crack that text open just enough to reveal the strange exuberance of its gallows humour. But they stay close enough to it to fully honour its intimacy and compassion, its grace and poignancy. In doing so they create what may be the first great milestone of the second generation of Beckett productions.

Happy Daysis at the Abbey until Oct 25