GALWAY THEATREGOERS are in for a rare treat next week when Argentinean company La Compania bring their award-winning production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days to the Town Hall for one night only on Friday September 25.
Happy Days, which was first staged in 1961, features two characters, Winnie and her husband Willie. Winnie, a woman no longer young, is embedded up to her “big bosom” in a mound of earth, She lives in an unending glare of light from which there is no escape: even the parasol she unfolds at one point ignites, leaving her without protection.
We learn that she has not always been buried in this way but we never discover how she came to be trapped. It is a strange image and “Strangeness,” Beckett declared, “was the necessary condition of the play - of Winnie’s plight in the play.”
He went on to say: “In this play you have the combination of the strange and the practical, the mysterious and the factual. This is the crux of both the comedy and the tragedy of it.”
Despite her predicament Winnie retains a dogged optimism. To quote Beckett again on the play: “I thought that the most dreadful thing that could happen to anybody, would be not to be allowed to sleep so that just as you’re dropping off there’s be a ‘Dong’ and you’d have to keep awake; you’re sinking into the ground alive and it’s full of ants; and the sun is shining endlessly day and night and there is not a tree…there’s no shade, nothing, and that bell wakes you up all the time and all you’ve got is a little parcel of things to see you through life…And I thought who would cope with that and go down singing, only a woman.”
Winnie has become recognised as one of theatre’s great female roles and in La Compania’s production she is portrayed by Viviana Lombardi. Speaking ahead of the troupe’s visit to Galway, she first described how La Compania originally came together.
“We met up at the University of Buenos Aires in the 1990s, we were studying the dramaturgy of Beckett,” she tells me. “When we formed the ensemble we chose the name La Compania as a homage to Beckett’s novel Company.
“We first did Happy Days in 1998 in Buenos Aires – I translated it – and it won a Theatre of the World Award. Later we relocated to London and pursued individual projects but three years ago we got together again and had the idea of revising Happy Days and give the production a second chance, this time in English before English-speaking audiences. So far, the feedback we have had from audiences has been terrific and we’re specially pleased to now be bringing the production to Ireland.”
Peggy Ashcroft, one of the many eminent actresses to have played Winnie down the years declared that the role is “one of those parts, I believe, that actresses will want to play in the way that actors aim at Hamlet - a ‘summit’ part.”
Lombardi whole-heartedly concurs with that assessment. “Absolutely. It is the best piece of work written for a woman I know of,” she says. “Beckett has such a profound understanding of her struggle with life and her inner emotions. The more you do it the deeper you go into your own feelings. It’s a dream part and I’m very grateful to be performing it.”
Has her approach to the role changed since she first performed Winnie in 1998?
“Yes I think there is a different approach because I am more mature now,” Lombardi replies, “but we keep going back to Beckett himself and rediscovering his intentions through re-reading the text and his own comments on the play.
“He is the real star of the piece not Winnie. We live in an era that is obsessed with success but Beckett stands apart from that outlook and reminds us that life is essentially a struggle and is often marked by failure – but he does that with great compassion and humour also; Winnie is like a female clown.”
When Beckett directed Happy Days himself in 1979 with Billie Whitelaw as Winnie, he emphasised the character’s innate eroticism which previous productions had tended to ignore. It’s an aspect of the play and the character which Lombardi and la Compania also highlight.
“We follow all Beckett’s directions regarding the play as closely as possible,” she says. “I love that side of Winnie, the way she reveals her sexual urges and needs. She can be quite childish in ways, wanting to go back to a time when she was still very desirable, and there is something humanly pathetic and vulnerable about that which is touching.”
While Winnie is the dominant figure in the play, her husband Willie is also important. In La Compania’s production the role is taken by Sergio Amigo who also directs the piece.
“Beckett often derived inspiration from the music hall and the silent movies and Winnie and Willie are like a stereotypical music-hall husband and wife,” Lombardi observes. “She is like a nagging wife in ways and he like a hen-pecked husband. In the design aspects of our production, we draw on that music hall aesthetic and bring out that stereotypical nature of their characters.”
Last, but by no means least, Lombardi notes that “Our audiences invariably laugh with this play and take great pleasure at Beckett’s dark humour and profound reflections on the human condition.”
Happy Days is at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday September 25 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on
091 - 569777.