Happy Days, Young Vic

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“The function of utopia is a critique of what is present.” – Ernst Bloch

I find myself thinking a lot about utopia, optimism, hope and idealism, as well as theatre’s place in that matrix of positivity. Perhaps it’s because, at heart, I think I’m an essentially optimistic person. As an optimist (most of the time) and as a theatre lover, it’s unsurprising that I invest the theatre I see with the possibility of hope, however small. Whether it’s Jill Dolan’s infectiously passionate Utopia in Performance, which greeted me like an embrace after weeks of burying myself in theory which all seemed to disavow theatre’s radical and optimistic potential, or the hopeful striking of a match at the end of Lucy Ellinson’s border ballad, it’s those slivers of optimism which always catch my attention.

Predictably, then, I was struck by that opening quotation from Ernst Bloch. It dragged my mind back to a discussion that Dan Hutton and I had on Exeunt a few months ago, in which we jumped off from Andrew Haydon’s (slightly disingenuous) positing of hope and critique as two sides of a dichotomy, opening into a consideration of hope in the theatre we were seeing at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. One of our shared conclusions was that there can in fact be critique within a hopeful narrative, a point that Bloch’s statement succinctly nails. The same, I think, might be said of discourses steeped in optimism. Just as utopian thought can function as critique, so too perhaps can optimism.

The scorched world of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is clearly not a utopia of any description. Indeed, it would not be much of a stretch to describe it as a dystopia. In Natalie Abrahami’s new production at the Young Vic, the striking prison of earth in which Winnie is trapped is less a mound of sand and more an inhospitable, rapidly eroding rock face, sloping sharply down towards the audience. Within Beckett’s demanded limitations, Vicki Mortimer’s design draws out both the precarious nature of Winnie’s predicament and the yearning, upwards movement that pulls in vain against her cruel, unexplained confinement. Add to this sound designer Tom Gibbons’ chillingly discordant “bell”, slicing Winnie’s time into regimented portions of waking and sleeping – not to mention the encroaching possibility that the sand will soon completely bury her – and it looks like a fairly hopeless situation. So what are we to make of Winnie’s stubborn optimism?

Optimism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, can be defined in two distinct ways. The first, more commonly used definition is hopefulness in a forward-looking sense; the placing of hope in a future outcome. The second definition, however, is the belief that “this world is the best of all possible worlds” – optimism grounded in the here and now. By this definition, as I look around at the grim state of the world we presently live in, I would class as a pessimist. Winnie, however, with her repeated, irrationally cheery “this will have been a happy day”, is an optimist by any definition.

Or is she? Her refrain, significantly, is “this will have been a happy day”, not “this is a happy day”. The happiness is always contingent, always deferred. This statement is often followed, after a pause, by the qualification “so far”, again haunting her contentment with the spectre of future calamities (unsurprisingly, one might argue, given the ever-present threat of suffocation by sand). Time itself is manipulated throughout the play, as in much of Beckett’s work, further complicating matters. Winnie seems, at certain points, to have destroyed the notion of change and the passage of time as a sort of coping mechanism. She insists, illogically, that “nothing has occurred”; even when her umbrella bursts into flame, she calmly observes that it will be back in its old place by tomorrow. Yet there is a definite routine to the way she lives out her days, and a habitual gesturing to both past and future. Her experience of time is less a stretched out, purgatorial present as it is a fluid, mutable marker of existence, and thus her brittle optimism cannot find a firm foundation in any tense.

Juliet Stevenson’s remarkable performance in the Young Vic’s production highlights every last nuance of Winnie’s complex, ambivalent relationship with optimism. Her first expression is an almost grotesque grimace of joy, her face stretching to form a strained mask. There is, proceeding from this moment, a certain deliberateness to Stevenson’s movements, at times becoming an almost mechanical precision. Held static, the thwarted physicality of the rest of her body is channelled through her arms, which she holds like those of a dancer. Each calculated flick of a finger seems invested with some unspoken emotion.

There is something similarly deliberate about Stevenson’s speech – appropriately, for a woman whose existence balances hazardously on words. There is always an effortful edge to her insistent pronouncement of the word “wonderful”, while another of her stock phrases, “the old style”, veers in delivery from cheery to wistful to mournful, eventually becoming stained with desperation. One of Stevenson’s great skills is her ability to load words with heavy yet never overstated meaning; “wife”, rolling laboriously from her lips, is invested with multiple accusations, sighs and hopes. At other times, by contrast, there is an ironic relish to her sentences and a wry ring to her laugh. Out of the bleak, Beckettian gloom, Stevenson’s humour glints brightly.

The overwhelming impression created by Stevenson’s performance is of a woman assaulted by feeling yet grimly determined to remain in control. Her delicate, virtuosic hopping from emotion to emotion is always wrenched back to a dogged cheerfulness, as she fixes her smile with the same care that she fixes her hat. Even her crying is contained, her hands pressing tears back into her eyes. Winnie’s optimism, at least in this production, is not blind or ignorant, nor is it the babbling of a woman who has lost her mind. Optimism emerges as a choice, but it is an unstable one. It has to be worked at.

The more I think about it, the more Winnie’s optimism (if indeed optimism the right word) feels like an apt comment on the situation we find ourselves caught in, particularly at this present moment. Returning to those two definitions, the optimism that many of us feel right now is firmly future tense. We believe, or at least we hope, that things will one day be better; therein lies the critique, as for the situation to improve it must first be flawed in some way. Yet to get by from day to day we, like Winnie, must find some optimism in the present. The system thereby bends us towards the second definition of optimism and the acceptance that ours is “the best of all possible worlds”. Unable to fully resign ourselves to this, perhaps we also hover somewhere between the two, determinedly injecting our lives with cheer and deferring, along with conflicted Winnie, our own happy days.

For another consideration of optimism in Happy Days, see Dan Hutton’s essay

Photo: Johan Persson.

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