Review: Happy days at the National Theatre

(Directed by Peter Hall with Dame Peggy Ashcroft as Winnie and Harry Lomax as Willie. Transferred from the Old Vic to the Lyttleton Theatre, 1976)

Rosemary Pountney

Dame Peggy Ashcroft first played the part of Winnie in Happy days at the Old Vic Theatre, London, in Spring 1975. After seeing Madeleine Renaud’s French Winnie, the performance of the grande dame of the British stage seemed at first rather disappointing. This was largely because Dame Peggy did not seem to be at ease in the role. A similar uncertainty was apparent in the early performances of Albert Finney’s Krapp, at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973, Finney gradually settling into the role and becoming less self-conscious in the opening clowning.

Peggy Ashcroft’s difficulty in 1975 was in fact largely vocal. One of her greatest strengths as an actress, the marvellous flexibility of her voice, was flattened and deadened in an attempt to convey an Irish accent—not a strong Irish accent, but, much more difficult for a non-Irish woman, the suggestion of one. A ‘non-accent’ accent resulted, with Dame Peggy’s superb voice not merely out of tune but restricted in its range, as though straitjacketed. Thus Winnie’s fluctuations of mood, so deeply moving in Madaleine Renaud’s performance, were dulled and Act 1 seemed to lack impact.

Act 2 proved more interesting because of an increasingly menacing tone, culminating in Willie scrabbling for the gun he cannot reach: in order to kill himself perhaps? —or Winnie? Her look of terror as her eyes flickered from Willie to the gun and back again, just before the curtain fell was magnificent (and here the contrast with the Paris production proved thought-provoking rather than disappointing). Where Mademoiselle Renaud, truly ‘happy’ to see her husband again, sang her song on an elegiac note—with perhaps a hint of future solace, Dame Peggy played the scene in mounting terror, sang her cracked song of a love long since dead and clearly had no hope what ever from the future.

There is of course a fascinating ambiguity about the ending of the play. Peter Hall’s production gives the ambiguous text a definite nudge in the direction of menace, but, since Willie fails to reach the gun, it remains an implication only. The situation works both ways. Perhaps Winnie’s incessant gabble drove Willie into his hole and his final effort is to check the flow. But the weight of the play is on Winnie’s side. ‘She is,’ said Peter Hall (in a talk to the audience after one of the final performances of the play) ‘a portrait of heroism.’

Hall’s talk formed part of the National Theatre’s tribute to Beckett (whom Hall called ‘the great mid-century dramatist’) for his seventieth birthday on 13 April 1976. Hall’s production, transferred to the new Lyttleton Theatre (indeed the first play to be previewed there before the official opening) had changed considerably over the year, as observed in a discussion following the talk. Hall acknowledged a ‘change of balance’ as deliberate policy, although he did not elaborate upon this. He did, however, make some fascinating observations about Beckett the director, Beckett having been present for the first three weeks of the play’s rehearsal.

It soon became clear, Hall said, that Beckett had a visual picture of the play in his head, which went far beyond his already detailed stage directions. He rehearsed Winnie by pointing out ‘this is what she does’ not ‘this is how she feels.’ Hall interpreted such precision of stage action as ‘a kind of notation, like music,’ and said that the Beckett actor must work backwards from his notation to the meaning of his text. He must feel but not show it. If his feeling is right, the audience will receive it telepathically. Beckett rejects conventional ‘Romantic’ or ‘emotional’ performances in favour of hard precise ones, but Hall feels that by showing warts and all his audience is correspondingly more moved.

The physical realization of Hall’s concept of the play is a rolling desert of grey hills or a sea of breakers. Instead of being embedded in a pyramid, Winnie is at the centre of the foremost rising wave, Willie in the trough behind her. The ‘maximum of simplicity and symmetry’ called for in the text is perhaps lost by abandoning the simple mound image, but the repetitive uniformity of John Bury’s set is much in tune with Beckett’s thinking and the lunar-looking landscape/seascape recalls Endgame.

The production clarifies certain things beautifully: that everything is running out (for example the toothpaste) and the gradual discovery, a word at a time, of the toothbrush sentence.

Peggy Ashcroft’s expressions, her natural reactions to an unnatural situation are brilliantly conveyed. She becomes moving when trying to think out her situation—’What difficulties here for the mind’ and realizing (with apprehensive smile) that reason, like memory, fails. I still did not like her accent (except when it strengthened, on imitating the Showers or Cookers). Hall pointed out that since Irish rhythms permeate Beckett’s texts, Peggy Ashcroft was trying to catch these inflexions, so it seemed a pity that she did not allow herself more of an accent more of the time. Act 2, good a year ago, now became a spine-chilling tour de force. Almost extinguished by the earth, haunted eyes staring front, forced smile while counting her blessing—and a hint of panic ‘What Willie?’ (She talks to him still, though unseen, since the thought that he may not be there is too dreadful to contemplate.) She is just holding on to sanity, with only the gun, the bag and the sunshade in sight.

In true Beckettian style the play ends in impotence. Willie (satisfyingly played by Harry Lomax) cannot grasp the gun—and yet another Beckett play approaches its stalemate.