I’ve never seen Samuel Beckett’s bleak study of human endurance done better than in this 60th-anniversary production, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring a luminous, riveting Lisa Dwan. Her character, Winnie, is buried first to the waist, then to the neck, in soil, and uses small rituals, prattle and memories to stave off despair. Dwan, the leading interpreter of Beckett’s work today, treats the limitation as an inspiration, giving a performance of immensely rich texture both physically and verbally.
She and Nunn root the action – if that’s the right word - firmly in Ireland, giving it an intense focus. The play’s depiction of tenacity in the face of diminishing freedom has gained a new relevance. Obviously, Beckett is not to everyone’s taste: anyone drawn to this show solely by Dwan’s turn in the BBC1 thriller Bloodlands in February may be nonplussed. But this is a terrific, uncompromising statement of the playwright’s arid, amused vision.
At first it’s weird. The audience is spaced out in couples on plush chairs like participants in a Moonie mass wedding, in one of Riverside’s rebuilt, barn-like studios. Dwan is revealed in the centre of a broad oblong frame, as if in a widescreen movie. But the expanse of painted sky behind her focuses attention on this slight, spirited creature.
The ground looks peaty: a church bell wakes her and sends her to sleep. That this Winnie is Irish gives a new spin to her ostensible primness and suppressed earthiness, her reliance on storytelling, song and prayer. Not to mention her relationship with husband Willie (Simon Wolfe), a gentleman reduced to disgusting habits and grunted replies, stuck in a burrow behind her. Dwan’s voice runs an extraordinary gamut from coy to hoarse to screaming. She punctuates Winnie’s dainty actions – keeping herself “nice” - with regular, indecorous hoiks of her bosom.
Winnie recalls a coarse man observing her semi-interred state and saying: “What does it mean?” That’s Beckett having a joke at his own expense and having the last laugh. Because Happy Days is obviously a metaphor for mortality, but it also speaks about all forms of decline, repression, unhappiness and limitation. For instance: Winnie is not just trapped by earth but by her own pretensions and frustrations, her inability to remember “that unforgettable line” of poetry.
Dwan and Nunn unpack the play superlatively well. Its nuances have never seemed so clear. Of course it’s grim. The lively Winnie of the start becomes a parched talking head and finally – thanks to Dwan and some clever lighting – a skull. Not cheerful: but masterfully done.
To 25 July: riversidestudios.co.uk