In Samuel Beckett’s 1961 play Happy Days, a decidedly upbeat woman named Winnie spends Act One striving valiantly to make the best of her sticky situation: she’s irrevocably buried up to her waist in a “low mound.” True, Winnie has her reticent companion Willie for company, but she cheerily defies the barren void by holding forth for a seemingly nonexistent gathering of spectators. And Act Two finds Winnie still determined to make a go of it, despite a marked deterioration of her condition: she is now buried up to the neck. 47 years after Beckett finished it, the brutally funny and moving Happy Days is now the hot ticket at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
This production, which has traveled the world after an acclaimed premiere at the National Theatre in London, is directed by Deborah Warner and stars the remarkable Fiona Shaw, whose performance in Medea, also directed by Warner, left New York speechless in 2002. Reviewing Happy Days for the New York Times, Ben Brantley notes that “the real energy that emanates from Ms. Shaw isn’t kinetic, or not merely that. What makes this Winnie burn with such solar strength is her determined opposition to the decay and darkness that some part of her acknowledges as her imminent destiny.” Tickets; the run ends February 2nd.
So was it your idea to do Happy Days? It wasn’t. The National Theater wanted me to do something and I thought I wanted to do something with Maggie Smith. We couldn’t find a piece and we wanted to do Waiting for Godot. Of course, the Beckett estate won’t allow women to perform Godot, so once the estate found out it was Maggie Smith and I, they said no. But they said we could do anything else. Nick Hytner at the National suggested Happy Days and I thought, "Oh no! It’s a very dense, frumpish, middle-age piece!" And so I was backed into it really. But once I started on it – or rather, once I started performing it, I began to see the glories of it.
Compared to other roles, how difficult was creating the role of Winnie for you? It’s terribly difficult. It really is the most difficult! Some years ago I performed T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which is not a play text as it were, there are no characters in it. But it has endless beautiful references and images, with all these quotations from Shakespeare, with lots of accidental magic. It was like enacting fragments of a movie or something. And the problem with Happy Days is that every time Winnie starts to speak or say anything she forgets. So she’s remembering something about her hair and she says, “That day… What day? What now? Words fail.”
So every time you get to an image you can hang onto as an actor it collapses. And it’s an incredibly severe thing to happen because you can’t work out what is the next image because it’s not connected to the one that went before. But of course in the gaps what it is doing is revealing a collapse that is filled in by the audience. So in playing it one almost feels that the next beat is being played by the audience.
What did the rehearsal process involve? Well, it’s difficult because there are just two characters in the play and one of them barely speaks at all. So often there was just me and the stage manager, who would drum these incredibly difficult fragments of phrases into my head in the morning. And then we would rehearse properly with the director at about 11am. Long, long hours of getting nowhere; that’s actually what it was like. And I knew we were getting nowhere. But I also know that getting nowhere is sort of like going into the desert in the Bible. You do have to go into somewhere awful. It’s not rewarding and it’s not fun. It can be great fun; rehearsing is often the best part of it. But in this instance it was really incredibly arduous. I hated Samuel Beckett during it because I felt he was not offering my imagination anything I can do anything with. But then of course, as I say, that is the point.
How have you been coping with the physical challenges of the production? Well, the last production I did in New York was Medea where I had to lift two dead children off the stage and into the water which was very physically difficult at the end of an evening. In this instance the physical challenges of being buried were really mastered in the rehearsal process because I would use very heavy sandbags all day. And I would get up every hour and play badminton to try and get my blood flowing again and go back into the mound. But by the time we performed it I was actually quite used to it. So I am quite comfortable in it right now.
What do you think Beckett is conveying with this manner of writing in Happy Days? I think he was trying to stain the void, wasn’t he? He’s expressing contradictory things, which is why it’s theatrical. Visually, this person is buried up to her waist and then the neck, so he’s saying something about the human condition being stuck. We’re stuck. Winnie and Willie are stuck. And most marriages may be all stuck or maybe people are locked into the ever-diminishing possibilities of their imaginations. But he’s also celebrating somehow the optimism of people and their ability to go on quoting beautiful things or attempting to and failing, attempting to remember beautiful things or attempting to say beautiful things or yearn for beautiful things. Their honesty in trying to name their fears; she says she could always just look out forever and not speak to anyone. These honest expressions of our needs are also what makes us very charming. So Winnie is both desperate and charming and I think the contradiction there is very life-enhancing because it’s not just negative.
After the run at BAM ends February 2nd, will you be performing Happy Days elsewhere? It’s been invited to open the Amsterdam festival and there’s much talk of it moving on to Broadway. I don’t know whether it will or not but I’m not sure how long I can do it for. It’s such a concentrated thing to do and I would hate it for it to not be a joy to do. So it may go on to Broadway but even if it doesn’t it will go to the Amsterdam festival and then it will go back to Epidaurus and it will open their festival this year because last year we were cut short because of the fires in Epidaurus. So this year we will go again for two performances in July.
Has the audience response in New York differed from other places you’ve performed Happy Days? Well, I was very keen. I had a big meeting with the National Theater last year where I encouraged them to allow it go to America because I had a feeling it would be truer to the American experience than the British experience. And I see I’ve been proved right in the best sense. Something about the Americans; they have a fantastic ease with the surrealism of the situation. Somehow they relish the absurdity of a woman being buried up to her waist. They can laugh at it and yet understand it. And so the wit of the audience at BAM has been absolutely fantastic, having been all over Europe with it. And they get everything; they laugh at everything. And they also understand the kind of mountainous sorrow in it. So it’s been absolutely the audience I’ve wanted to hear this and it’s taken me a year to get to them so I’m thrilled to be here.
What is it that’s made your collaboration with Deborah Warner so fruitful? I suppose luck in a way. You don’t know how long you’re going to be able to work with somebody. And also distance; we take very big gaps between every project. We don’t go one to the other, we do one every two years or something. I think the distance probably allows other things, other experiences to inform the next thing that we do. We also practically hear the same thing. I think we have very similar ears so rhythmically when something is wrong I hear it as well as her. I have been absolutely delivered to the audience in the best possible way by Deborah. So I’m endlessly grateful for that. The level of artistry of the set, the design, the lighting design. It’s a team she works with and it’s a privilege to be supported by that kind of excellence.
The New York reviews have been amazing. Do you read the reviews? No I don’t. But I understand they’ve been amazing and I’m pleased. But I only read them when I go home. Not for reasons actually of terror or judgment but often they say something that is tiny that sticks in your mind and it really interrupts your performance so I prefer not to.
What’s the most memorable interaction you’ve ever had with someone who’s seen you perform? I’ve had some very interesting letters. I played Hedda Gabler once and I had a letter from a man and he said, “I am Hedda Gabler.” And I thought that was wonderful. Because I think, at best, these plays – if they’re big enough – are not about the gender experience, they’re about the existential experience. So it’s very, very moving when they jump gender. I actually think Beckett is much nearer Winnie then he is Willie. I think he is really Winnie. The phrases he uses in the play are phrases from his life, that he heard as a child or that had emotional impact for him even though they seem tiny. And I think this is really when the writer is writing from the bottom of the sea of the soul. So when people get that and can identify with that, completely independently of the situation they’re looking at, then you know the framework on which the thing is built is really standing strong.
Have you had a chance to explore any of Brooklyn? I’ve only gone down between the matinee and the evening performance to walk down Fulton Mall. And I loved it – a fantastic walk! [Laughs.] I mean, there are some wonderful places and people. You see people wearing a tracksuit and hoodie with a statue of liberty costume on top – it’s absolutely absurd. You see men with dark glasses pushing other men in wheelchairs carrying window shutters and you think this is absolutely Krapp’s Last Tape or Endgame. The characters are so strong; people are so fantastically defined in Brooklyn. And they’re all eager to declare themselves alive and that’s very Beckettian! [Laughs.]
Every time I see a play, which is at least once a week, someone’s cell phone goes off during the performance. I’m curious – is this a New York epidemic or something that’s happening all over the world? Well, we’re all struggling with this new gadget aren’t we? It seems to happen all over the world. People are very strict about it now in England. But I hate it when people make a loud announcement saying turn off your cell phone. But it’s about good manners, isn’t it? I think people don’t believe anyone’s going to ring them. But the good thing about Happy Days is that Winnie has these wonderful lines like, “Sometimes I hear sounds. Not often.” As if Beckett has written in the annoying sounds that audiences make during the evening so at least I can incorporate the cell phone into my world.
Are there any New York restaurants you try to go to when you’re in town? Well, I used to be a big, big fan of the Café Luxembourg and I have only had one chance to go there. But there’s lots of new ones; I went to the Bowery Hotel the other day and it seemed marvelous. And there are other trendy ones; I haven’t launched into that attack yet but I’m going to!
How have the Harry Potter films affected your career? I don’t know how they’ve affected my career but they’ve affected my fame with children. I did a film about ten years ago called three Men and a Lady and for a long, long time after that I was very well known among the under twelve. And the same thing seems to have happened all over again with Harry Potter, in that children are phenomenally affected by it. And in a way I prefer the books belong to the children, not the films, because they people them with their own imagination. But it’s very interesting because children are much nearer the unreal world than adults. It’s gotten to the stage where my father, who lives in Ireland, sometimes has people driving to his house with their children to see the place where Harry Potter’s parents live. It does take a bit of head bending to work that out; "you know Mrs. Dursley's dad lives there." And then somehow the book has a life beyond the book! It’s incredible!
Photo of Fiona Shaw by Hugo Glendinning.