I’ve been lucky enough to catch the indomitable Fiona Shaw in most of her recent U.S. touring performances, including her stunning rendition of Eliot’s “The Wasteland” in 1996, at what was then the soon-to-be demolished Liberty Theatre on Manhattan’s 42nd St. She delivered the elegiac prose poem from the edge of the stage apron, crossing its width only occasionally to interact with the ghost light that stood stage center. The theatre itself smelled musty and cold, and at least half of its seats were covered in thick, dusty plastic in preparation for its transformation into an anonymous cinema. But Shaw’s virtuosity and charisma emblazoned the space and mesmerized spectators lucky enough to witness the performance. (She certainly has what Joe Roach might call the “It” factor; see his book, It, just released from University of Michigan Press). In 2000, I saw her perform as Medea in a British import production on Broadway (an occasion about which I write in my book Utopia in Performance).
Last week, I made a pilgrimage to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in DC to see Shaw in Beckett’s Happy Days in a production imported from the National Theatre of Great Britain, directed by her long-time collaborator Deborah Warner. In the relatively intimate space of the Terrace Theater, Shaw once again captivated audiences, this time with her terrifically mobile, expressive face and torso, and her inimitable command of Beckett’s language.
In front of the curtain (which in this case is a fire wall that lurches a few inches upwards and then back down every few minutes, as we wait for the “action” to begin), the forestage is strewn with the debris of what looks like an explosion or a demolition, which resonates clearly with the post-WTC attack landscape of lower Manhattan. Twisted steel cables thread through concrete rubble in a terrain parched by unfiltered, ungelled white light aimed from intense canned instruments hanging on the extreme sides of the stage.
As the fire wall slowly rises, it’s clear that the wings of the stage are exposed so that the audience can see all the way to the theatre’s walls. When the “curtain” finally rises, it reveals a layer of opaque white plastic hanging from a horizontal steel pipe, which is reminiscent both of the way builders try to mask construction sites and, more prosaically, of a shower curtain pulled around a bathtub. The picture evokes the edgy mix of public/private scene that makes the play so compelling and devastating.
The whole stage remains open, floating within the frame of the theatre’s walls, rather than confined to the edges of the proscenium and its sides. Behind the mound of littered concrete in which Winnie is planted, immobilized from the waist down, a vaguely realist landscape painting of a muted, gray-blue/white-tan desert-like geography provides the backdrop for her monologue, as if a palpable scenographic reminder of a more natural environment that’s imperceptibly fading even as she speaks.
Dissonant, loud, and unpleasantly grating music plays to usher us with some trepidation into the play’s world. Rumbling, rattling sounds that could be the mechanisms of building or the apparatus of destruction echo through the air. By contrast, when the white plastic curtain lifts to reveal Shaw stuck in the mound, her lilting voice seems musical by comparison, projecting one of the many contradictory impressions that make the production so vivid.
Shaw’s Winnie is startlingly flirtatious, given her immobility and existential isolation; she appears to address the audience directly, since Willie—her mostly unseen interlocutor—resides behind the mound, just out of her direct line of sight. Shaw’s characterization at times verges on desperate, while she also plays at a kind of vaudevillian brightness of affect.
Her ability to engage these apparent contradictions demonstrates Shaw’s command of an amazing range of moods, all of which works to make Winnie a strong, layered, powerful presence onstage, instead of the dithering flibbertigibbet as which she is sometime portrayed. With her arms akimbo, wearing a sleeveless black dress and a set of black chunky beads that rest in the hollow of her throat, her gestures approach the operatic and theatrical, as if Winnie literally performs herself into being.
In this production, Happy Days is as much about the theatre as it is about an impossible philosophical condition. Winnie’s ever-present bag looms beside her on the mound like a bag of props. She draws from it the objects that sustain and engage her, personal artifacts that have long lost an external purpose, like her toothpaste and the toothbrush from which she tries repeatedly to read the meaningless words that situate it as both “genuine” and necessary. The revolver she casually pulls from the bag, without comment, although she kisses it rather intimately, signals foreboding; in a realist play from the modernist canon, a gun presented in the first act would inevitably be fired in the third.
But in Beckett’s absurdist world, the gun remains unfired, a potent symbol nonetheless of Winnie and Willie’s inability to assume agency over their lives or deaths. The second act reveals Winnie now buried to her neck in the rocky rubble and debris that seems to encroach further toward her still-moving mouth even as we watch. The gun sits just to the right of Winnie’s vision, an impossibly remote device of her impossible redemption and release.
But in the first act, Winnie’s bottomless bag seems as mysterious and hopeful as the suitcase Hermione carries through much of the last book of the Harry Potter series—as small as it appears, it contains limitless depths and the capacity to hold a whole trainload of stuff. At one point, she drags a mirror from its bottom, which she then cracks on a rock and tosses behind her. Winnie says smugly that it’ll be back in the bag, unbroken, the next day, sure of how unchanging and quotidian her life remains, even when it appears cataclysmic.
For instance, an unexpected, startling fireball appears out of nowhere in the middle of her diatribe, catching her parasol on fire and injecting the stage with a momentary sense of real and present danger and violence. But once the fire recedes, Winnie claims not to know whether the conflagration even happened; reality, here, is a figment of a rich theatrical imagination and little more.
In fact, in the second act, the formerly burnt parasol rests near the revolver, in sight but out of reach, perfectly intact once again, like a trick prop that’s been reset for the next performance of a play. The props mark the passage of time; Winnie parcels out her attention to them as a way of organizing her experience. What Andrew Sofer, in his book of the same name, calls the “stage life of props” are redolent with their own existential theatrical weight.
The theatrical metaphor is underlined when Winnie reports that a couple passed her and disrupted her routine, the man asking impertinently why Willie couldn’t just dig her out. The man wants to know “what it means,” referring disparagingly to her immobility, her metaphysical intransigence, but Winnie reacts to his perplexity with arch superiority, as though her condition should be self-evident. She denies these trifling intruders the satisfaction of an explanation she clearly finds unnecessary. That it’s the man of the couple who interrogates her allows Winnie to assert her own gendered presence against his; she’s no trifling woman, despite her physical disadvantage.
Winnie enacts Beckett’s disregard for his own detractors. Beckett presents Winnie’s effort to interpret the hieroglyphics on her toothbrush handle as equally as important as understanding the meaning of Winnie’s condition (and the meaning of his play). When she finally discerns the faint letters, her joy in putting the words together far exceeds what they mean. But the pleasure she takes in her effort mirrors the spectators’ own pleasure in engaging the possibilities of the play.
Time looms large in Happy Days. Shaw delivers some of her most poignant line readings around “the old style,” her label for time’s days and nights as they used to be delineated, since in this post-apocalyptic moment, when to sleep and when to get “up” is announced by an imperious bell and nothing more. Time is marked by action more than by meaning; in the first act, Winnie shifts uncomfortably and notes that the earth is getting tighter. Yet she soldiers on, always aware that things could be worse, a prophecy born out in the second act, when only Shaw’s rubber face remains free to express Winnie’s indelible presence.
Shaw’s performance is a physical, vocal, and emotional tour-de-force. She carefully marks every word and gesture and scores each nuanced emotional shift, so that Beckett’s repetitions and reiterations seem like a jazz improvisation with recurring themes always presented in surprising new ways. Shaw knows where she’s going each step of the way; her strength as an actor, and her willingness to be so bold and courageous in her performance choices, ameliorates her powerlessness as a character. She renders Winnie peculiarly hopeful (or is she deluded?), capable of creating her own sense when the world makes none at all.
To the end, Winnie’s memory brings her comfort, as she recalls lines from literature that preserve her, even though they seem only absurd. The old lines, like the “old style,” mean everything and nothing, just like Happy Days.
With existential awe,
The Feminist Spectator