Young Vic Theatre, London
Starring: Juliet Stevenson
★★★★★ (out of 5)
The stage is already set. The enclosure of the venue reveals a cascading slope of rock and sand. The golden flakes that litter the set intensify the dry heat projected by the intense lighting.
The figure of Winnie waits in sleep, buried up to her waist in the sand. The crowd keep talking and in the strange stillness someone near me asks if the person on stage is real or just a mannequin.
This quiet doesn’t last long. A discordant pulse of sound erupts in the brightly lit theatre, making some members of the audience cover their ears, and Winnie comes to life.
She greets ‘another heavenly day’ and begins her ablutions and trying to read what is written on her toothbrush, talking all the while, sometimes to her unseen husband Willie in the cave behind her, out of the burning heat of the sun.
Winnie conjures up half-remembered phrases of Milton and Shakespeare, the crumbled remains of clichéd words of comfort to avoid that fearful silence where ‘even words fail’.
She performs her routine with relentless (and often very funny) optimism: talking about the bag of objects which lies beside her, removing certain items (including a revolver), putting up her parasol (which catches fire), and playing her music box (which causes Willie, briefly, to sing); her cheeriness only occasionally slipping as her speech escapes her, allowing a brief glimpse at the horror of being in ‘such wilderness’. There is another violent noise and the theatre is in darkness.
The second act is a much more frightening affair.
The sand has collapsed further, burying Winnie all the way past her neck, leaving only her face visible. She has the revolver in front of her. The small words of acknowledgment from Willie that brought her such pleasure in the first half have disappeared: he is maddeningly silent.
Sand is pouring steadily down past her mouth throughout and several of the frightening bursts of sound that began the play interrupt her. Winnie tries to remember the couple who last passed by her, ‘Cooker or Shower their name was’ who tried to make sense of her predicament: an attempt at understanding which Winnie writes off as ‘the usual drivel’.
As she recalls a childhood memory and screams both for herself and for Willie, she keeps trying to steady her mind, repeating several times: ‘Oh this is a happy day’ and ‘that is what I find so wonderful’.
Eventually Willie crawls out of the cave, dressed in a suit that resembles the one he wore on their wedding day, he crawls up the mound towards her and she encourages him before he gasps a semblance of her name: ‘Win’. She, in turn, sings the love song heard earlier from the music-box before another burst of sound shakes the room and signals the end.
From the moment it begins this adaptation of Happy Days thrums with energy.
Juliet Stevenson is fantastic as Winnie, her face capturing perfectly the move between frenetic brightness and the horror of encroaching silence.
The stage design fills the odd space of the Young Vic perfectly, and the fierce lighting not only gives credence to the presence of a sweltering sun but lends the audience an uncanny presence complementary to the modernist themes of the material.
The second act in particular is a forceful: from the alterations to Winnie’s make-up accentuating her desperation to Stevenson’s increasingly wild delivery and the muscular, wheezing motion of Willie’s final crawl.
Go, let yourself be seduced by the woman of the dunes, and prevent it from being the night alone that listens to their words.
Happy Days runs until 21st March