England isn’t living through happy days. Despair at the cost of living, stringent attacks on welfare, political confusion and the storms, currently battering our coastline, ensure this is so. It’s February 15th 2014. And I’m writing the very first entry for my blog. Not with any intention to dramatically change the state of the nation, but casually inform, instruct, hopefully entertain myself and others: give people a happier day!
I’m too old and undisciplined to start a diary or journal. The only time I tried that was in my early thirties and the result was too gushingly existential and introspective. I’ve written the occasional essay, book or film review but I never felt I put my heart into it. They always appeared the scribblings of an unpaid hack journalist. Now the world of the electronic blogosphere has tempted my ego to have its day, and its say, channel my thoughts into blog essays that will try not to be too wilfully opinionated.
For this new form I’ll coin a term neither blog nor essay, but the blessay. Last week, a close friend of mine announced that we were blessed to live in London and enjoy so much of its culture for very little money, or for free. So to him I dedicate my first blessay. No, capital letters. The BlessAy. No, I have to also insert a dash. The Bless – Ay. That’s better!
On Wednesday afternoon I struggled through the wind and the rain to make my way to the Young Vic for a matinee performance of Beckett’s play Happy Days. I’d seen a production well over fifteen years ago at the Barbican theatre. That production convinced me it was a masterpiece. Until then, and I’d been a great admirer of Beckett’s work since I was a teenager, Happy Days had struck me as a minor play compared to Godot or Endgame. A tour de force of theatrical absurdity about Winnie, a middle aged woman in the silly predicament of being buried, up to her waist, and then neck, in sand. So what? I hadn’t been moved by her plight; somewhat in the way the woman trapped in a hole in Teshigara’s film Woman of the Dunes struck me as being more of a symbol, than a real person demanding my sympathy. I still have problems with the Japanese film’s entomologist and his dune companion, but nowadays Beckett’s Winnie reduces me to tears and laughter. No longer an abstraction but a trapped human being. It requires great acting to let us empathise with Winnie, and appreciate Beckett’s poetic dialogue: convince us that she can never be pulled out of the sand. For the sand trap is our lot and we heroically grin and bear it. Juliet Stevenson played Winnie so brilliantly that I came out of the theatre convinced that there was sand in my own shoes and socks, that the grains would drive me, and my feet, mad but I had try and shake them out, and never forget to laugh.
In 1980 I was lucky to be able to watch Beckett on stage directing an actor in Endgame. He did it as if he was conducting; addressing an orchestra player on how to get the maximum expression from their instrument, or untrain their actor’s voice so as to express Beckett’s inner voice. Billy Whitelaw intuitively understood that. And so does Juliet Stevenson. She inhabited that sand dune as if it had always been her home. In act one, when her arms still have mobility, she employed a body language that was both playful and poignant. The way Stevenson picked up a magnifying glass to watch an emmet, in the sand, crawl onto her body, was so expressive. Her watching of the insect was the watching of all of us, so small and insignificant, then become funny, and meaningful, for a moment, as we ‘fall’ against the body of Winnie, with her universe of absurd gestures and whims, as she passes the time, playing with a glass, toothbrush, spectacles, parasol, mirror, and revolver; whilst continually rummaging in her beloved black bag. Winnie is a very funny and bleakly dotty creation. And also a hugely courageous and vulnerable woman.
This production of Happy Days cast its spell right to the very end. And what an ending! Husband Willie, dressed in formal wedding gear, crawls towards his wife. Willy’s progress towards Winnie is both shocking and deeply moving. Yet his own struggle to ascend the mound is an example of Sysiphus acting technique that’s a ‘joy’ to experience. If Juliet Stevenson has, of course, nearly all the words, all the survival monologues, speeches and asides, then David Beames’s performance as Willie conveys a body language to equal her own. His final, desperate physicality conveyed such heart rending sadness. Beckett would have loved it.
The wind had dropped, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining when I left The Young Vic. Weather wise an improvement. Yet Sam Beckett’s world clung on. “Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! (Pause.) After all. (Pause.) So far.”