Review: Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

As I left the theatre on the final evening of the run, I saw Leah Cherniak, the play’s director, speaking to Peter Hinton, NAC English Theatre’s Artistic Director; and I had to express my reaction to the production: “Beautifully done.”

Although Beckett’s play fairly reeks of the experimental theatre of the sixties—with its premise of a woman buried, first up to her waist, then up to her neck; and the absurdist sections with Willie—it is still a compelling piece of theatre.

Victoria Wallace’s set, with its huge mound of what appeared to be solid Laurentian Shield bedrock, was effective and almost totally realistic. The hanging gossamer sky was another touch of sixties set design, lending a sufficiently other-worldly ambience to the location.

Through the course of the piece, Winnie, the main character, cannot move much at all, particularly in the second act, when her only movement was facial expression. Beckett seems to have created the play with a particularly cruel problem for the actor playing Winnie: “express a huge range of emotion from one fixed position during the course of the entire play.” In that regard, it seems more like an acting class exercise than a play. Tanja Jacobs was more than up to the challenge: with a little as a flick of an eyebrow to give layers of meaning to a phrase, she brought the second act to a boil so that when Willie makes his surreal entrance, struggles up the slope towards her and the pistol lying near her still-talking immobilized head, we really feel the intensity of will focused here.

About Willie: Beckett has written an incoherent babbler in the first act, playing with his back to the audience, mostly out of sight, nude. In the second act, he is mute, finally appearing, looking for all the world like the Monopoly tycoon, in top hat and tails, with a grand twirlable moustache. In Paul Rainville’s hands, the part is so natural, intense and focused that we believe his angst, which plays superbly against Millie’s for the most part mundane lines. It is these mundane utterances that contrast so ironically and vividly against the situation. Here is a woman imprisoned by the planet, who can babble on equally about a grandchild or the grand trap in which she lives. It is Willie’s indifference and pain that give perspective to it all—Rainville does so much so well with so little.

But it is Jacobs’ tour de force, and she played each note with precision and subtlety, expansiveness and bravura.

Again, all I can say is, “Beautifully done.”

The National Arts Centre presents
A National Arts Centre Theatre Company production

Happy Days
by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Leah Cherniak
Set and Costume Design by Victoria Wallace
Lighting Design by Jock Munro
Sound Design by Thomas Ryder Payne
Assistant Director Tanner Harvey

Tanja Jacobs …. Winnie
Paul Rainville …. Willie

Laurie Champagne Stage Manager
Jane Vanstone Osborn Assistant Stage Manager
Samira Rose Replacement Stage Manager

Running time: approximately two hours including one twenty minute intermission

Performance seen: September 4, 2008 7:30 pm

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About riverwriter

Poet, playwright, duplicate bridge player, website designer, cottager, husband, father, grandfather, former athlete, carpenter, computer helper for my friends, theatre designer, backstage polymath, retired teacher of highschool English, drama, art, a baritone singer in a barbershop quartet, who knows what else? wordcurrents is on Facebook: Doug also has a Facebook page, "Incognitio", related to his novels.
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