Sinking into the obscure
The Beckett Project I
Couvre Porte, Vittoriosa
As a venue performance, the Llanarth Group’s The Beckett Project I – a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days as part of the Malta Arts Festival 2012 – was an interesting event, if not quite entertaining.
Patricia Boyette portrayed Winnie, the protagonist of the piece, with most of the script being a monologue while she occasionally tries to pique her husband Willie, played by Andy Crook, to pay attention to her prattle.
She is seen trying to engage him in conversation, attempting to elicit a response.
Her most remarkable characteristic is, of course, the fact that she is buried up to her chest in the sinking earth, while Willie, is free to move as he pleases.
But he seems to be completely caught up in his newspaper reading and hardly ever replies to her questions unless it’s with a forced one word answer – which seems to satisfy her.
Beckett intended Winnie to be in the process of being swallowed up by the earth which is supposed to be giving her life.
But in reality it is sucking it away from her in an arid, brightly-lit plane of loneliness, where she is tortured by a lack of communication and resorts to using the contents of her large black bag to keep herself occupied.
Ms Boyette was stuck in a mound that was positioned a little too high up, but the effect of the technological detritus surrounding her on the set was quite effective.
It’s a barren world which isolates us despite the use of contemporary means of mass communication.
The set was cluttered but it worked as a concept because it showed just how barren a technological wasteland can be.
It was indeed reminiscent of the opening scene in Disney’s Wall-E where a solitary “Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class” robot zooms happily around humming the tune of Put on your Sunday Clothes from Hello Dolly. The sentiments that Winnie feels are very similar – she too repeats the words “the old style” with a strong sense of nostalgia and is thankful for “small mercies”.
The sloping ground of the Couvre Porte gave the set an extra plane although the audience did have to crane their necks to see Winnie at the top of the rubbish mound, while Ann Archbold’s lighting design worked very well.
Director Phillip Zarrilli brought out the best in the two actors, whose aim to put across Beckett’s existentialist commentary was achieved.
I found that in the second act, when Winnie has sunk further into the ground, up to her shoulders, the metaphor became rather more laboured in its delivery due to the static nature of the piece.
Tortured and unable to sleep in the bleak landscape that is swallowing her up alive, Winnie still tries to make the most of her existence and Ms Boyette certainly tried to make the background fireworks work for her.
Beckett’s repetitive ideological insistence and linguistic rhythms tend to make his writing highly valid from an academic perspective.
There is much scope for analysis and expression of theoretical conceptuality with such observations as: “To have been what I always am – and so changed from what I was” juxtaposed with “It’s hard to crawl backwards but it’s very satisfactory in the end”.
One can understand the fascination he has with criticising what is wrong with a world which he firmly believes is falling into irrevocable dystopia.
The play ends with Willie attempting to crawl towards the ever-sinking Winnie in a desperate attempt to do something which is never fully revealed but whose intention is leaves the audience suspecting that he aims to reach Winnie’s revolver.
The purpose of this is left unsaid, like much of Beckett’s most strongly felt opinions and it works well when presented to an audience familiar with his work and receptive to it because of the fragmentation of life and hope which it reflects.
However, it is quite hard to reconcile his niche target audience with a public whose desire for theatre and what works for them is different. I find that Beckett is a playwright to be studied and savoured, but it is often problematic to translate him well for the purposes of entertainment.
While Happy Days was certainly an excellent showcase of Ms Boyette’s technical acumen, where she manages a babbling brook for linguistic play deftly; as well as a valiant attempt to ensure the viewer/observer felt the oppressive frustration which underscored the characters’ existence, the feeling at the end was one of relief rather than discomfort.