SAMUEL BECKETT’S classic play Happy Days, comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Monday February 3 in a production by London-based The Godot Company.
The Godot Company was founded more than 10 years ago by actor Peter Marinker and John Calder, Beckett’s long-time publisher and close personal friend. As its name might suggest, the company is dedicated to the performance and promotion of Beckett’s work and it has toured many of his plays extensively over the past decade.
Beckett wrote Happy Days in 1960/61 and it was first performed in September of the latter year in New York. Whereas much of his work was initially written in French, Happy Days was written in English. The play features one of Beckett’s most iconic characters, Winnie, the woman we encounter buried in the ground up to her waist and, later in the play, up to her neck. Despite her predicament, she doggedly pursues her daily rituals and frequently insists “This will have been another happy day.”
Winnie is voluble, her torrent of words stemming from a strange mix of optimism, vitality, wilful blindness to the reality of her plight ,and an unspoken fear of death and loneliness. As a character she provides a stark contrast to her husband Willie, barely seen throughout the play, who is taciturn and monosyllabic. Their relationship is a grimly funny parody of a long-married couple sunk into their own routine of familiarity and non-communication.
Winnie is played by Dubliner Colette Kelly, who moved to England in her teens and subsequently studied acting at London’s Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, graduates of which include Angela Lansbury, Terence Stamp, and Minnie Driver.
Colette made her debut with The Godot Company in their 2009 staging of Endgame which also came to the Town Hall.
“Having done production they wouldn’t let go of me then,” she laughs, speaking from her London home. “I’ve since done Play, Footfall, Rockaby, Eh Joe, and I’ve also been involved in the readings that they do in the theatre that John Calder set up in his bookshop, Endicott.”
Colette admits that prior to working with the Godot Company she was not very familiar with Beckett’s work.
“I knew about Beckett but like a lot of people I thought he was a bit of a mystery. Sometimes you think ‘Oh I can’t do that, it looks terribly complicated and intellectual’, but then when you cross that barrier the first thing you find is that he’s got a terrific sense of humour, even if it’s a little bit dark at times. He loved the silent movies and in Happy Days there are moments we refer to as ‘Buster Keaton moments’ like when he would do a double-take. So it is far more accessible than people think.”
She also readily acknowledges the benefits for an actor of having John Calder as part of the company.
“Of course it is a great boon having John as part of the company,” she says. “He lives in Paris most of the time and I went to see him there to go through some stuff with him and he can tell you everything. John would have been in the theatre when Beckett was directing Billie Whitelaw, and other productions as well, and he can tell you the notes and direction that Beckett was giving them, he knows all these things.
“You can ask him anything about Beckett and he knows. Beckett did have a very close relationship with his mother and there are a lot of things in Happy Days which reflect that. I think if you are Irish you’re more likely to sympathise with Winnie and recognise aspects of her character because we are different human beings from the English!”
Peggy Ashcroft famously likened the role of Winnie to a Hamlet for actresses, how does Colette view the part?
“I’m inclined to agree,” she replies. “It’s a marathon but once you’ve learned it, it’s a piece de resistance. It’s got so much colour in it, on the one hand you have Beckett philosophising, having Winnie trying to work out has the Earth lost its atmosphere, what are we doing here, we’re all going to die so let’s make the most of it.
“There are some very bleak moments but then all of a sudden you’ll turn the page and it will be hysterically funny because she’ll be talking to Willie her husband, who’s hidden in a little hole next to her, who doesn’t say much, he only reads the paper so he is no help at all, but their little exchanges are hysterically funny. They lift the play, it’s not all heavy and bleak.”
When Beckett was directing Billie Whitelaw as Winnie he highlighted the character’s eroticism and Colette agrees this aspect is important.
“I think there are definitely moments in the play that would give rise to that,” she says. “There is sexual innuendo and she is described as being in her fifties, blonde hair, very low-cut evening dress, full-bosomed. She was probably quite beautiful in her day though now she is fading. I hope we bring that erotic side of her personality out.”
Our phone conversation is taking place on a Friday evening, and the show’s producer has informed me Colette will be away for the next two days being fitted for a wig. That must be quite a wig, I suggest.
“Well, I’m not blonde myself,” she chuckles. “The play is set in the late fifties so it has a period look and the wig has to look just right, a cheap wig plonked on her head would let down the whole production. It’s being made by a wigmaker I know from my time in the West End in the 1970s, he’s a wigmaker to the stars!”
And her final thoughts on Happy Days? “I want the audience to know that it is an enjoyable evening, you go with Winnie on her whole journey and as Beckett said himself ‘There is always hope’ even if things look bleak. And that is Winnie personified ‘another happy day!’”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie