Above – Judith Lucy. Photo – Pia Johnson

Opening nights are consciously jovial affairs purposefully crammed with the right and the write kinds of people. An opening night signifies the official start of a show’s run, the point where the director lets go and allows the work to find its own path. It's also a celebration and recognition for the collective achievements of the cast and crew getting the thing to stage. Subscribers, company patrons and family and friends can really bolster the mood of a new show and this is highly desirable given opening night is also about generating publicity. Unlike Broadway where a poor review can shut a production in days, Australian critics don’t wield that same savage power but nonetheless, theatrical publicists remain ever eager with symbiotic expectation for punchy straplines to adorn marketing collaterals. An empty seat can’t be sold at curtain down and in Australia’s sport-soaked landscape, any Arts coverage should be valued because it doesn’t just benefit the major companies, it holds the space for everyone.

Missing out on the canapés and champagne on opening night is obviously devastating but there is a major advantage in attending a regular performance – The Audience.

This new-fangled idea of not having an interval does fail to consider the older gent, however, dashing last minute from the toilets through a relatively empty foyer makes conversations a little more audible. “Thanks for asking me along – What’s this play about and who’s in it?” said one young gentleman to another and no opening night audience member ever.

‘Happy Days’ isn’t easy.

High on many ‘best play ever written’ lists, Samuel Beckett’s 1961 ‘masterpiece’ is as challenging to understand as it must be to perform. Absurdist, tragicomic, dark and existential; unsurprising descriptors for a work penned by the man who also wrote Wating for Godot, a two act play in which, ostensibly, nothing happens.    

Winnie is a woman trapped, not just metaphorically – actually.  “Stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground” says a passer-by. Winnie spends act one buried in the Earth to her waist and the second act, up to her neck. With only a bag of personal comforts to aid her daily rituals and ablutions, Winnie’s allusion filled incessant rambling and predicament has generated reems of pontification across the plays 60-year history. Set in no particular time or place, the strength of this work is in its capacity to so easily amplify contemporary sensibilities. Winnie's husband Willie (Hayden Spencer) lives nearby in his own hole, lurking, mostly out of sight and still capable of mobility and independence. His (lack of) listening and very occasional utterance is the impetus for Winnie's talking and equally, the source of her joy, frustration and occasional vitriol. A misogynist reading may well suggest a commentary on husband as hen pecked victim, cowering in his man cave for some respite. Alternatively, an observation of women, still trapped, stationary and smothering in their place, forced to be reliant on a man for almost everything in the “Old fashioned way". A genderless take might see our lives as utterly futile and control of our destiny incrementally harder to prevent, slipping just like Winnie into an ever worsening situation. Winnie though, is an eternal optimist, resilient and pushing through as she does with a smile and always seeing the worth of “Another Happy Day.” Crucially what seemingly keeps her perky is both the simplest and quite possibly the hardest thing of all, connection with another human being.

(Written now, Becket would undoubtedly have included a Rapid Antigen Test in Winnie's bag and billed his work as an exploration of undiagnosed and unmedicated ADHD!)

No stranger to stage solitude but stepping away from more familiar performance territory, comedy national treasure Judith Lucy is terrific as Winnie. Her satirical back catalogue, schtick and trademark delivery make her the perfect choice for the role. This is a bold move and one she really does pull off, however, with her star vehicle and comedy cachet as selling points comes the curse of expectation. Despite Lucy capitalising on any and every comic moment, people will be buying tickets anticipating material that is much more fun and a great deal funnier.

Dialogue is never throwaway and every word fights for its place on the page. With a non-linear text as complex as ‘Happy Days’, an actors internal thought process needs to be cast iron for an audience to stand a chance of sharing the journey. Lucy’s impeccable timing and trademark delivery genuinely serves us in making sense of a script that is laden with ambiguity, deliberate pausing and very precise stage direction. Like a painter with access to a single brush, the physical limitations prescribed for Winnie significantly reduces the tools available for an actor to play her. In act one the restraints are brutal, in act two, they’re severing. Performing in such extraordinary circumstance is an enormous ask and undertaking. Judith Lucy began her career as an actor but it’s been a while. Ironically it’s the imposed limitations of the role that also highlight some of the limitations of the performer, however, once again, it is Lucy’s unique and innate vocal dexterity that gets her across the line. 

With Eugyeene The’s outback like set and Winnie's very ‘ocker’ voicing of the comments made by the random passer-bys, (hilariously referred to as the ‘Cookers’ yielding no laugh at all) the production does have a distinctly Australian feel. As mentioned, nothing in the text denotes a location and nothing particularly pointed to any major points being made in placing it here – but why not? This is a good production of an extraordinary play; however, it’s not going to be for everyone and for some, MTC promotion will result in immense disappointment.

Happy Days will happily be debated for eternity but meanwhile, the inflated whoopings and hollerings of an opening night crowd doesn’t for a second indicate they grapple any less with Beckett's ambiguity and subtext, it is however, refreshing to see and hear regular theatre goers more honestly reflect upon a work they struggled with.

Event details

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Happy Days
by Samuel Beckett

Director Petra Kalive

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, VIC
Dates: 1 May — 10 Jun 2023
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au

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