Review: Happy Days, Care Instructions ~ theatre notes

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review: Happy Days, Care Instructions

Over the past few days. Ms TN and the man to whom she's a spectacularly Bad Wife (although, of course, a deeply empathic partner and awesome literary colleague) have been discussing whether to revisit Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, which both of us saw on opening night at the Malthouse. It ended up being a peculiarly Kierkegaardian dialogue.

"I think," said my beloved, "that I'd prefer to stay home. It was such a brilliant experience, it gave me so much, that I would only be trying to repeat it. And I'd prefer to treasure the experience I already have, rather than to overlay it with another memory." "On the other hand," said I, "I'm dying to see how Julie Forsyth's performance has evolved since opening night. It won't be the same experience, sure. But it would certainly deepen the memory." "Yes..." said the Man, a true Forsyth fan and so sorely tempted. "Lemme think about it."

The upshot of this kitchen table philosophising is that I'm going again, shepherding my eager offspring who are, encouragingly, all Beckett fans. And the man of the house, observing the dictum that you can't enter the same river twice, is staying home in the unusual quiet, perhaps trying to write his own play, or washing up the dinner dishes, or waiting impatiently for the next stage of Le Tour de France. And so peace reigns among the Croggon/Keenes.

Domestic voyeurism aside (which is not, after all, entirely inappropriate for this play) the point is that this is an unusual conversation. My crowded diary means I very seldom think about seeing a show more than once, no matter how much I enjoyed it. Michael Kantor's production of Happy Days is, however, a work of theatre that rewards on every level: emotionally, intellectually, sensually, spiritually. It's up there with The War of the Roses as one of my peak theatrical experiences this year, leaving me with that boundless elation that is the true rush of the theatre addict. As I said in my review for The Australian, employing my best reviewerese, it's "a great performance of a great play by two of our great actors".

It's difficult to do justice to elation, which might be why I've been shilly-shallying so much in writing about it for the blog. Another reason is that I wrote about Beckett a couple of months ago, when I saw André Bastian's season of short plays at La Mama, and I hate repeating myself. Much of what I wrote about the short plays applies to Happy Days: Beckett's uncompromising truthfulness, his stern theatricality, his strong relationship to visual art, his profound tenderness and compassion. But maybe what leaps most vividly out of this production of Happy Days, even more than his vaudevillean comic gift, is Beckett's attention to beauty.

Beauty is not a word often associated with our Sam. He's considered to be, well, hard work: worthy but glum, the province of humourless intellectuals who enjoy having the meaninglessness of life jammed down their throats. Yet, as even the briefest survey of his work attests, he paid a great deal of attention to the beauty of form. His work has never been especially biddable to those ideals which claim beauty as a conventionalising template of perception, a kind of anodyne fodder for the cultural consumer that anaesthetises the contradictory pains of living; but it's beautiful all the same.

Perhaps it's worth divagating for a moment to consider what beauty might be. As Ezra Pound said poignantly in the Pisan Cantos, "Beauty is difficult". The German composer Helmut Lachenmann has written compellingly on this question, in an essay called The 'beautiful' in music today (published in an early print edition of Masthead). Noting that the idea of beauty was "downright suspect" among the avant garde of the mid-20th century, he goes on to suggest that beauty has a profound moral dimension which artists ignore at their peril. As he says:

Today the call for beauty is more suspect than ever - whether the concept is a pluralism embracing all conceivable types of hedonism, or else a reactionary hangover after false hopes and promises, or just academicism of whatever sort. Its proponents betray themselves over and over again as they cry out for 'nature', for tonality, for something positive, 'constructive', for 'comprehensibility at last'... It is high time for the concept of beauty to be rescued from the speculations of corrupt spirits, and the cheap pretensions of avant-garde hedonists, sonority-chefs, exotic-meditationists and nostalgia-merchants. The mission of art lies neither in fleeing from, nor in flirting with, the contraditions which mould the consciousness of our society, but in coming to grips with them and dialectically mastering them...

Yet we still try to cultivate the hope that the human genus is capable of acting rightly, which presupposes that it is capable of recognising its own structure, and that of reality. We still believe in a human potential. Beauty is what we call that feeling of happiness which in art, as a human message, is released by the communication of some sort of belief. And yet such belief, even in its most illusion-free variants – such as in Beckett's art – is not contained in a philosophical or intellectually encoded message, but in the experience, communicated by sensory perception, of people who succeed in expressing themselves … knowing full well that the artist has not something to say, but something to create.

It's a good description of the kind of beauty Beckett creates. In Kantor's production of Happy Days sensory pleasure is foregrounded, paradoxically focusing Beckett's uncompromising attention to an illusion-free reality. Kantor's gift for theatrical excess is squeezed to a diamond focus by Beckett's unforgiving strictness, making the best of both of them. All the production elements - Anna Cordingley's spectacularly curtained set, Russell Goldsmith's bold sound design and Paul Jackson's lighting design - frame and amplify the performances, driving the experience home to the heart, where it most truly belongs.

The core is, of course, performance and text. Winnie is one of Beckett's most poignant characters: trapped in a mound of earth under a pitiless sun, her days shaped by the tyranny of an alarm bell, Winnie (Julie Forsyth) passes the time by chattering to her mostly invisible and mostly silent husband, Willie (Peter Carroll). With bright, unquenchable, but doomed courage, she finds consolation for the unbearable - encroaching death, soul-corroding loneliness - in the most trivial aspects of daily routine. And each discovery is greeted with rapture. "That is what I find so wonderful," she tells Willie. "Not a day goes by without some blessing."

Winnie's courage is in her lack of self-deception: she knows there is no hope, and that her life has no meaning beyond its immediate actions. But she persists anyway. So familiar is Beckett's language, so intimately real in all its theatrical absurdity, that Winnie gets under your skin. She is all of us, a soul trapped in the material decay of the body, longing to be loved, yearning towards the "holy light". Yet Happy Days is not only a shatteringly moving picture of loneliness endured. It's startlingly contemporary in its picture of humankind trapped in exhausted nature, a world in which the sun beats down so harshly that Winnie's umbrella catches fire. Like any great writer, Beckett made faceted metaphors which attract new meanings in every era, and climate change gives Happy Days a grimly apt relevance.

Forsyth - ironic, funny, despairing, heart-rendingly brave - finds every nuance in the fragile rhythms of Beckett's prose, creating a performance of limpid clarity. I still remember Forsyth in the Anthill production of Happy Days 20 years ago, and there are resonances of that performance here, refined and focused and deepened. I'm convinced that this is one of the great performances of the role.

Importantly, Kantor paid serious attention to casting Willie, which is, superficially at least, an unrewarding role: he's barely seen on stage, and when he is visible is mainly seen with his back to the audience. And yet, for all that, Willie is crucial to the play, as Winnie's (mostly) absent interlocutor. Peter Carroll is an inspired choice: he crawls around the set like a broken clown, and even when not visible he is palpably present. He almost steals the show with just seven lines.

And yes, I'm looking forward intensely to seeing it again tonight.

In some graceful programming, the Malthouse is simultaneously presenting Care Instructions in the Tower Theatre. An Aphids show directed by Margaret Cameron, it demonstrates how Beckett's tradition is still a living theatrical force. This show enchanted me at its premiere at La Mama's Courthouse Theatre last year, and it's no less enjoyable to revisit.

This production is sharper, its theatrical gestures heightened and thrown into relief. Care Instructions is basically a fairytale about washing. Its central theme - if one can speak about themes in a work like this - is the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty who curses the young princess, and the show itself is a process of exorcism, a lifting of the curse. Cynthia Troup's allusive, fluid language makes this not so much a play as a spell.

Margaret Cameron's direction unites the Joycean fluidity of Troup's script with a Beckettian aesthetic: the three women appear in white mob caps and linen laundry bags against a black background. But the design also recalls the unsettlingly erotic sculptures of Louise Bourgeois. It's a reminder that an important strand of modernism, the great artistic movement of the early 20th century, was a liberating assault on the stereotypes of gender. James Joyce's famous Molly Bloom monologue at the end of Ulysses has, for example, been cited as an exemplary feminine text.

Just as important was the influence of brilliant women artists, not only giants such as Virginia Woolf or Gertrude Stein, but equally interesting if less well-known talents such as Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes or H.D. Troup's text, drawing on these traditions, is scored as accurately as music, and demands a similar kind of listening. Using myth, song, nursery rhyme, poetry and the washing instructions on labels of clothes, Care Instructions explores the archetypal figure of the godmother.

Personified by the laundresses Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee, she is an ambiguous figure: slyly wicked, anarchic and disobedient, she's also a guardian and an agent of liberation. At the core of the performance is a delight in the small pleasures of sensual life: the smell of clean washing, the feel of wind and sunlight. The opening monologue by Jones, projected on to the front of a clothes dryer, is perhaps a few beats too long, slightly imbalancing the performance. But this show evades mere whimsy, generating an irresistibly playful charm.

Earlier versions of these reviews were published in The Australian.

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, directed by Michael Kantor. Set And costume design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound by Russell Goldsmith. With Peter Carroll and Julie Forsyth. Malthouse @ the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse until July 25.

Care Instructions by Cynthia Troup, directed by Margaret Cameron. Music by David Young, lighting by Danny Pettingill. With Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee. Aphids and Malthouse Theatre @ the Tower Theatre until July 26.


neandellus said...

What a pretty form! A digital palimpsest? A newspaper review layered by a blog entry, layered by a second blog entry, layered by (hopefully, perhaps, in the coming days) a third blog entry.

And also, let us have more of these Kierkegaardean dialogues. We, the chatterers, want for precisely such mappings of the aesthetico-cultural shhphere!

genevieve said...

thanks for the reminder, Alison, I have my ticket now.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Neandellus... sandwiches are a handy means of nutrition, after all. Though why would I do a third blog? And further dialogues might be just too much like Waiting for Godot.

Di said...

I saw the play last Saturday afternoon which was its second last performance in Melbourne. And I thought it marvellous: the performances, the lighting, the sound, the costumes and setting...and of course the wonderful words. I agree that the climate change reference - Winnie and Willie under the harsh sun- gave it a sharp relevance.

When I walked into the theatre and saw the blue curtain I was reminded of a Billie Whitelaw show I saw many years ago at the Universal Theatre in Fitzroy. Billie Whitelaw performed two or three very short Beckett pieces. When she first walked into the bare space she was holding a blue folder, what I would call 'ming blue', and very close to the colour of Anna Cordingley's curtain.She said sommething like 'this is the most cheerful thing you will see tonight' before she went on to perform the pieces. I don't remember what they were called: images of an old lady in a rocking chair in a beautiful tattered gown etc. Perhaps you saw it too? But 'Happy Days' is a lot happier/funnier than that was. Both were very beautiful. (Thanks for the ideas you posted about 'beauty'.)

Did that opening scene- Winnie spread out (Christ-like)on the ground, the blaring sound and the lights flashing- also reference the start of 'Terminator'(the film) for you? It did for me.

I don't live in Melbourne and can't afford to go to many shows, but I'm glad I spent my theatre dollar on this one.

Alison Croggon said...

Hello Di - I'm delighted you made it, and even more that you liked it so much.

I'm very envious you saw the Billie Whitelaw performances. I didn't, although I have been told about them in detail. What a beautiful connection...! The play you remember is Rockaby, which La Mama did quite recently in a season of short works. (There's also a lovely performance of it on the DVD, Beckett on Film, which costs a fortune but is well worth the investment - maybe it's in a library near you?)

I never reported back on my second viewing. It confirmed my belief that Julie Forsyth is one of our great actors. I also think Daniel won in the "experience can't be repeated" debate. It was certainly a different experience - the performance was interrupted, ten minutes before the end, by a serious medical emergency (a boy collapsed in the audience, although apparently he was all right later), which meant everyone had to leave the theatre as parademics attended. In the end, the interruption lasted around an hour. A surprising number of people remained, however, and when we returned Forsyth delivered perhaps the most skin-tingling ten minutes of theatre I've ever experienced. Different indeed, but in its own way, perhaps just as satisfying.

Alison Croggon said...

PS - I have to admit, I didn't make the Terminator connection!