Winnie (Belinda Giblin) is trapped in a mound of dirt, unable to move, and yet she persists in carrying on with life in whatever way she can. The unyieldingly abstract Happy Days by Samuel Beckett evokes what feels to be an infinite number of themes. In its refusal to impose restrictive parameters, choosing instead to include vague references as to who Winnie might be and what might have happened to her world, we discover that the storytelling happens predominantly inside the viewer's head. One of art’s fundamental purposes is to inspire. When Beckett is done well, the resonances from his work are entirely transcendent. And, on this occasion, the mind’s eye is undoubtedly provided plenty to latch onto.
Set design by Charles Davis manufactures, for the stage, a vision of the apocalypse. We find Winnie stuck in the remains of a planet that has been burnt to the ground. Ash everywhere, and behind her stands a faded billboard touting “there is nothing like Australia,” a throwback to when tourism, and money, meant something. The juxtaposition of a genuine artefact from the realm of commerce and advertising, against an imaginary disaster zone, makes so pertinent the self-destructive nature of modern existence.
Giblin is exquisite in the role of Winnie. With half a century of performance experience under her belt, it is perhaps not surprising that the level of preparedness Giblin brings should be anything less than comprehensive. But to watch her in action is completely disarming. Every word she conveys is imbued with extraordinary intensity and formidable meaning, determined to hold us captive where Beckett’s writing can, occasionally, leave us cold.
Also wonderful is Lex Marinos as Winnie’s husband, Willie. He is in a state of perpetual discombobulation, always in the picture, but barely present. Deeply committed to the supporting part, it is a generous performance from Marinos, who honours the centrality of Giblin’s work in Happy Days. Both actors are embarking on their eightieth decade on this earth, and with them comes a bountiful sense of worldliness, their very bodies and faces providing an important context of time to the material.
Restrained work by Veronique Benett on lights, and Shareeka Helaluddin on sound, deliver a ghostliness that haunts us. The catastrophic scenario is immediately recognisable, prompting us to consider Winnie’s predicament not to be an imaginary tomorrow, but a parallel today. Directed by Craig Baldwin, the show’s atmospherics are flawlessly rendered, connecting with our subconscious and intuitive selves, who are sure to have a greater appreciation of the work than their usual more cerebral counterparts.
When we watch Winnie suffocating in her mound of dirt, it always feels like the end is nigh. For her, though, the end seems never to arrive. There is an element of resignation in Winnie’s interactions each day, but that is only due to the irrefutable physical limitations that she finds herself subject to. Her mind, however, is limitless, and with that, hope is always a glimmering companion, as are regret and reminiscence.
When we say that we are running out of time, it only means that there is time left. There is an urgency in Happy Days, indicating that, for as long as we are denied the finality of death, something must be done. It may appear that Winnie is tragically unable to leave the world a better place than how she had found it, but we must recognise that in reality, we are in many ways unrestrained. To acknowledge the freedoms that we still have is to be able to bring improvement to this life.
The walls of this world might be crumbling down, and the trees falling at a desperate pace, but with each breath taken, space for making better choices is always a possibility. In Giblin’s expert hands, Winnie's incapacitation demonstrates ironically, yet so clearly, our ability to act now. What we do with the time we have left is the pressing question.