HAPPY DAYS at Theater Branoul in The Hague

After Waiting for Godot I suppose Happy Days is Samuel Beckett’s best known work. Claimed by The Independent newspaper in the UK as one of the best forty plays ever written, it was first performed in New York in September 1961, six months after the completion of the English version.

It’s a strange play, virtually a single-hander. Middle-aged Winnie spends her life up to her waist in a mound. A mound? In the text, that’s what it says. So, it is usually represented as earth but dozens of other things are used – anything in which Winnie can be half hidden. She has a husband, Willie, who is just an occasional presence in the background. He lives behind/under the mound and spends most of his time reading a newspaper.

We see Winnie woken by an alarm clock, starting her day. She gets her stuff out of her bag and sorts herself out. She brushes her teeth and struggles to read the information that is on the toothbrush’s handle. All pretty mundane, but most lives are mostly mundane, routine. And this is what fascinated Beckett, how to make the boring interesting – two men standing at a crossroads waiting, an old man searching for a lost recording tape. How does he make that riveting? He goes where no other writer dares, revealing the hidden depths of the commonplace.

Winnie is probably one of the largest/longest/most demanding parts for an actress in any play. It is a mountain to scale and, like Hamlet for a male actor, it can define a career. But scaling that peak is not for the faint-hearted, there are no ropes to stop her falling and no safety net. Winnie gets no support from husband Willie whose only contribution to the proceedings is to grunt and sneeze occasionally and to inform us, from the newspaper that he reads, that there is an opening for a smart youth, where and by whom we do not discover.

This presentation at the tiny Branoul theatre in the heart of The Hague is the first production by The Classical Theatre Company which is based in Rotterdam. Created and run by Claire Worland, its mission statement is to present to Dutch audiences . . . err . . . classical theatre, in English. So, they intend to mount Shakespeare and other established, well-known plays in a fairly traditional manner.

The mound in their version of Happy Days is a sort of non-descript affair, consisting of draped cloth, certainly very moundy and certainly brown. It does the job. What is lacking is a context. Beckett stipulates that the mound is covered by scorched grass and there is a backcloth representing unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in the far distance – i.e. in the middle of nowhere, a desert. The small stage of the Branoul, and the fact that there is a pillar stage-right, limits what you can do designwise but I feel more could have been done with this production to make it visually more interesting.

As to the central performance and the production as a whole? Ms Worland herself takes on the role of Winnie and also directs. In a play with several characters and a lot of movement it is quite feasible for the leading actor to direct but, in what amounts to a single-hander, for the sole static actor to also direct is, I think, an unwise decision. Her performance was competent but, effectively, it meant there was no director, and it showed.

It will be interesting to see how and if The Classical Theatre Company develops. It is not an easy thing to mount a show, even a small one like Happy Days, so Ms Worland and her crew should be congratulated. A brave attempt.   Michael Hasted   8th July 2023