Review: Andrei Serban directs Irene Worth in ‘Happy days’
The news that Andrei Serban was to attempt Happy days at the Public Theater in New York was greeted with a fair degree of scepticism. Serban, known most recently for startling ‘concept’ productions of The Trojan women, Agamemnon and The cherry orchard which struck some as highly offensive to the playwrights, intentions however momentarily engrossing they might be, is not a self-effacing director. Happy days, replete as it is with the most detailed directions (to say nothing of Beckett’s documentation of his own 1971 production), seems to defy directorial ingenuity. Beckett has tended to mistrust directors and Serban is not a man to leave a text alone. Happily—and surprisingly—the director has followed the playwright to the letter; shortly before the opening, he was quoted in The New York Times: ‘it would be idiotic to change Beckett around. He’s so precise every movement of the eyes, of the head.’ At least in conception and text he is completely faithful.
Beckett somewhat apologetically called Happy days ‘another misery,’ but it stands out in the canon, not only as his foremost vehicle for an actress but, arguably, as the most difficult to perform of any of the plays. With no one to interact with most of the time, the actress attempting Winnie must project everything subtextually, and should she fail the audience will be left with a muddled impression. In addition, she must avoid throughout the temptation to play for pathetic, half-witted comedy, lest she make Winnie merely a sand-covered version of Meg in The birthday party.
Despite her formidable predecessors—Ruth White, Madeleine Renaud and Dame Peggy Ashcroft among them—Irene Worth triumphs in the role. Some months before, she had had her first stab at Beckett in Narratives (at Harvard), an ill-conceived attempt to join Beckett texts to atonal chamber music. Only when she offered a wistful, brooding reading of the story of Mildred and her doll from the end of Happy days—to piano accompaniment—was the evening anything but calculated novelty. Now she is free to take the role in its own terms. Worth is an American actress whom American audiences regularly assume to be British, perhaps because of her many years with the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company. For whatever reason, her performance is nicely de-nationalized: her Winnie has British mannerisms (Winnie has been called Beckett’s most English character) without anything that seems unnaturally tacked on. Her accent is unidentifiable. Physically, she is the picture of Beckett’s own description.
Worth is most captivating in her moments of pure mime; one can clearly see why she finds Winnie ‘the closest to Charlie’s tramp that you can get.’ But her Winnie is so realistically composed that her thoughts and words seem perfectly natural for a middle-aged woman with a cluttered mind. She is amusing throughout and unlike other Winnies she appears fully conscious of the irony of her situation. The quotations in the ‘sweet old style’ are delivered with a touch of asperity and with little genuine conviction. She regards her encounters with Mr. Johnson-Johnston and Mr. and Mrs. Shower-Cooker with a sort of sarcasm that rules out self-pity. Only on rare occasion does she weaken and then it’s only for the briefest moment. For some tastes, she—or Serban—may carry this strength too far. This is a cold conception of Happy days (recalling Serban’s broad and unfeeling The cherry orchard), one denying Winnie her occasional moments of dithering pathos.
The only warmth in the character is evoked by her Willie (competently played by George Voskovec) about whom she is never ironic. The ending of Happy days is its major ambiguity: is Willie trying to reach Winnie or the gun, and if the gun, to use it on her or on himself? Serban is not definite, but clearly Willie will succeed in reaching nothing; he ludicrously attempts several climbs up the mound but always slides back making no progress. At last he gives up the struggle and Winnie watches him with an expression of concern and devotion. Here too Serban seems determined to alienate us.
Michael Yeargan and Lawrence King have created a lunar landscape that suggests that there are other offstage mounds, and their sky (with Jennifer Tipton’s lighting) is a heavenly and artificial blue, in sharp contrast to the orange sky—dating from the Paris production—that some have preferred. In short, this Happy days is not at all dispiriting but not deeply moving either. Irene Worth’s Winnie is neither deluded nor conventional, and she is sentimental only with Willie who is the real buffoon here. One cannot always accept a performer’s description of what he finds in his role, but in this case Irene Worth has very accurately realized her own description: ‘She represents mankind, the stamina of man and the triumph of the spirit. She rejoices in the life force. Things get her down, but she never feels sorry for herself. She springs back in a symbolic way.’ Whether this is the Winnie one usually imagines is another question.