Erasmus University in Rotterdam hosts the World Database of Happiness, a collection of studies and statistics examining the relative contentment of 95 nations and their populations. Factors such as wealth, health, religion, political involvement, and even feminism are all considered. And yet amid this exhaustive research, there’s no data exploring how waist-high burial in a desolate landscape with only a taciturn husband and a handbag for company affects one’s satisfaction.
Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett’s 1961 Happy Days, doesn’t let these unusual circumstances faze her. As she performs her ablutions, she chirps, “Another heavenly day.” It’s certainly another heavenly night when passed in the company of an actress as accomplished as Fiona Shaw, who plays Winnie. Shaw and director Deborah Warner have returned to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with an arresting take on a classic, following their collaboration on Medea in 2002. In that production, Warner had Shaw play the Colchian princess as a disaffected housewife. Here, she urges Shaw to portray the dithering Winnie as a woman of intelligence and appeal, not unaware of her plight but determined to make the best of it.
Physically, Shaw little resembles the woman Beckett originally envisioned. In a letter to Roger Blin, who directed the French premiere, Beckett described Winnie as “a little heavy, a little bit fat . . . a virile woman, perhaps, with expressive eyes, and a large bosom.” Shaw has expressive eyes, yes, but she’s quite slender and only the aid of a push-up bra allows her any bosom at all. Shaw’s Medea may have been a housewife, but her Winnie isn’t—she styles herself as more glamorous than that, possessed of allurements. Warner also has designer Tom Pye somewhat modify Beckett’s specifications for the set (with permission from the famously prickly Beckett estate). Instead of the single scorched mound, masses of collapsed concrete paving and broken bricks heap the Harvey Theater stage, the detritus of some man-made disaster.
That set may prove the production’s most evocative element. Shaw’s a wonder to behold—present, engaged, perilously funny—but she’s so good at showing how Winnie survives her circumstances that she nearly transcends them. When every line Shaw says is rewarded, deservedly, with audience laughter, one almost forgets Winnie’s plight.
The emphasis on surface brightness ignores the yawning dread beneath. Warner has mentioned the play’s “terrifying emotional center,” yet she takes pains not to dwell there. No contract states that a Beckett production requires lashings of existential despair (not even his estate would insist on it), yet to do without seems strange. Are we ready for Beckett without tears? Shaw and Warner apparently are, with this unusually happy Happy Days.