I nearly met Samuel Beckett once. He was a friend of my university tutor and he came to see some of us for sherry and debate. “It was a shame you didn’t meet him” said my tutor. “It was a shame you didn’t invite me” was my riposte, but only in thought, not words. I chose not to meet Yevgeny Yevtushenko when he also visited for sherry and debate, and I’m pleased I didn’t as the whole set-up was intimately recorded by a visiting TV documentary team who “just happened to be around”, and I would have found that a great invasion of my privacy. I did however meet Kathleen Raine who came round for sherry (no debate I think). It was on the stairs outside his rooms and I had no idea who she was. I didn’t ask her about poetry, scholarship, neoplatinism or even Ring of Bright Water. “Is it still raining?” was all I said.
I digress. About four years ago I thought it was about time Mrs Chrisparkle was exposed to the works of Samuel Beckett so we went to see a production of Waiting for Godot at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a very good production. It went on a bit perhaps. But I thought it had a lot of merit. All Mrs C said afterwards was “Never take me to another production of Waiting for Godot. Please.” My look must have been one of astonishment as she added: “Don’t make me beg.” So it was with some trepidation that I awaited her response to this new production of Happy Days at Sheffield, with Pauline McLynn as Winnie. It was definitely her name that decided me to book, as I felt it would be perfect casting. What could be more Beckettian than Mrs Doyle? And so it turned out. Her performance is a splendid tour de force and keeps you locked in with interest despite the difficulties that Beckett chucks in your path.
They cleverly constructed a mini proscenium arch stage in the middle of the otherwise free acting space that is the Studio, slightly reminiscent of the kind of thing you might see at a village memorial hall; or actually my old Pelham Puppet Theatre. So you get a very traditional feel but in a modern space. When the curtains open, what you see is completely enclosed on all four sides by a black border frame, which reminded me of those modern digital photo frames, which you can set to play a sequence of snapshots. However, there’s no series of different images here. It’s just a pile of rubble, from which Winnie emerges at the top, visible down to her waist, but with her arms free to gesticulate, a little like one of those awful doll toilet-roll holder things. The rest is arid desert. It’s a very striking image.
Central to the whole play is the character of Winnie. Much has been said about her by countless scholars much more insightful than me. All I can say is that she is irrepressibly optimistic about the minutiae of life, despite living in a hostile environment, buried in a mound of rocks, responding without free choice to external signals, and having limited movement. She is kind, considerate and supportive, and whilst she has her Willie hovering in and out of sight, and her tools for existence in her black bag, she is happy. In the second act, when she is even more buried and with less movement, her outlook is still broadly similar but her eloquence, and maybe her faith, begins to fail.
Pauline McLynn makes Beckett’s language come alive. If you read the play text it’s extremely difficult to imagine how it can become three dimensional on the stage. But she transforms it. It’s a sparkling, lively performance, with great vocal dexterity, endearingly conveying all aspects of Winnie’s personality. She very much looks the part, and her warmth easily takes us into her confidence. She makes you laugh – a lot. Her timing, which is all important in this play, is impeccable. When Willie finally speaks out loud she says “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!” Mrs C laughed a little too knowingly at this line, making me think I must sometimes be unwittingly taciturn. Oops.
Lurking in the background, sometimes out of sight, sometimes seemingly undressed, is Willie, who ostensibly has more freedom that Winnie in that he is not enclosed by a mound and he can also read the newspaper, even though it’s probably the same headlines everyday. As of course, in real life, it is. Peter Gowen gives good support and can be a menacing as well as supportive presence. When he is scrambling through the rocks at the end of the play, you feel very disconcerted by what he is doing. Is he trying to get the gun? What for? To kill her? To kill himself? It’s a literally painful sequence – the scraping of those rocks and stones looked and sounded very real to me. I’m sure Mr Gowen’s knees, hands and arms must be red raw by the end of the play
The play’s reputation and its place in the modern repertoire are I think fully deserved. But there is a danger that it could become – maybe it already is – a museum piece, as the stage directions are so set in stone (much like Winnie) that there is limited opportunity for future productions to convey anything new about the play – really the only change possible is the new voice of a new actress. Even Winnie’s facial expressions are dictated by Beckett. It may well be that it is a timeless piece and that Beckett got it so right that changes are not necessary. But I do feel, having seen it once, that there is no need ever to see it again.
Nonetheless it is an excellent production, and a great choice for the Crucible’s young resident director Jonathan Humphreys to cut his Sheffield teeth. As for Mrs Chrisparkle, she found it a much more rewarding experience than Waiting for Godot, I’m pleased to say, and has not ruled out furthering her Beckett-like experiences. I think, however, we might have to wait a little longer before she’s ready for “Not I”.
As a postscript, I’m sure that in later life Beckett could have written an eight-minute drama about an old man failing to come to terms with modern technology and its effect on the wider community, based on my effort to use the ticket machine in the car park.