Friday, February 14, 2014

Buddhist Beckett and the Bawdy Bard


Another two plays in a day. My Bardoholicism is getting worse, and the withdrawal symptoms kick in quicker and harder with each passing week. On Tuesday night I was to be found tapping on the computer desperately searching for a Shakespeare play I hadn't already seen. Eventually, I found one, down in the balmy climes of Peckham. Hurrah - another Bard production. And I get to see Peckham!

Well that was Wednesday evening sorted. Was there anything I could see in the afternoon?  I scanned the Interweb for matinee performances. What's this? Last minute tickets for Juliet Stevenson in Happy Days for a tenner. Blimey. Bargain.

Arriving at Waterloo station in the midst of Stormageddon, I was late and sploshed randomly from street to street looking for the Young Vic. Eventually, with five minutes to go, I spotted a huge poster of Juliet Stevenson dressed as a rainbow ball, and soggily entered the theatre. Grabbing my ticket and  a pint of pale ale, I was hurriedly ushered dripping and panting to the "gallery". The view was fine, and as the final remnants of the audience drifted murmeringly in, I peered down at the dark set of blasted rock, at the end of which was the bowed figure of a woman immersed up to her waist in earth. She did not move. Another five minutes and she still had not moved. Silence grew, and still she bowed, with not a breath; not a tremble. 

The silence then was shattered by one of the nastiest, most unearthly noises I ever heard. It was horrible. Then, silence. Then that skull shattering noise again. The theatre lights dazzled, and up sprang Winnie, who smiled out at the audience: 

"Another heavenly day."

Happy Days is very simple, and enormously complex at the same time - an unflinching examination of futility; funny and heart-breaking throughout. Samuel Beckett's stage notes are exacting about the arrangements of the set, and the sounds - even about the appearance of Winnie. Some people find the resulting static set and monologue too austere and harsh to be entertaining. I, however, found it fascinating and moving. I was glad to be seeing the play in the raw at last. As a teenager I had sat wide-eyed in front the telly in 1979 watching Billie Whitelaw manically gabbering through pain and death - a performance that has stayed with me ever since. 

Happy Days is very much a Buddhist play. Though steeped in Anglicanism, Beckett was interested in Buddhist phenomenology. Emptiness is there in much of his dramatic work, and Happy Days raises questions of the meaning or value of a brief painful life between two voids. Stuck in a hole in the ground in the middle of a blasted wilderness, Winnie is forced to confront mortality and extinction full on. She tries as much as she can, however, to keep herself busy, in a mustn't grumble kind of way. Much of comedy and tragedy in the play comes from her exploring and weaving stories around the contents of her bag. What with her husband Willie grunting behind her in a hole, then, there is just - just enough to occupy her, and keep her from collapsing emotionally. Not doing so, is, however, a struggle, and the play rests on this pivot between emotional survival and collapse. 

Juliet Stevenson is an astonishing actress. Through her strained smiles, warm stories, and encouraging calls to Willy, she embodies bravery amidst horror, with iron in the soul that keeps her going, day after day - after day. Although the play is ultimately about nothing (it is a Buddhist play, after all), Juliet Stevenson's performance raised issues of decrepitude and senility. As Winnie told another half remembered story, hoping to be heard, I thought of a husband and wife in a care home; with one trying to keep the other going. As long as one has memories (the bag), life is still worth living - just. Happy Days thus shares many of the themes explored in Krapp's Last Tape. Indeed, it is arguably a sequel to the earlier work, being produced only three years later, in 1961. 

With every smile and shrug of her shoulders, Winnie bats her demons away - and we are all on her side. What bravery, what heartbreak - Beckett has produced a work of art that confronts us with what we prefer to ignore, and raises the question of how we deal with decline and extinction as it draws inevitably closer. I left in awe of  Beckett's vision, and the humane, affirming acting of my favourite actress, Juliet Stevenson. 

I reemerged into blinding sunshine and strolled to the Tate, where I spent an hour in the current Surrealist exhibition, staring at Picassos, Dalis, a Bacon, a Julian Trevelyan;  and one of the wonderful COBRA artists, Karel Appel's brutal painting, Hip Hip Hoorah! 

Taking the overland train to Peckham Rye, I eventually found the the CLF Art Cafe opposite the station. I entered an empty bar (very Beckett) and was greeted by a genial and informative barmaid. I ordered a beer and sat down - I liked it here. Gradually, the bar filled up and we were ushered two flights upstairs to the performance area. Here was another bar, surrounded by several loud, self confident young people. One came to me. "Chin chin" he said, and clinked his glass with mine. Strange, I thought. A young woman then turned to me and asked if I had seen her brother. Aha - got it - Twelfth Night. Later on as we waited for the play to begin, a young man came asking if I had seen his sister and gave a detailed description of her. I smiled. Nice start. 

Then the play began in earnest. Staged by the Whistlestop Theatre Company, this was a highly energetic performance - wired, even. From the dreamy beginning  of 'If music be the food of love, play on . . " the proceedings accelerated to a break neck speed, with actors whizzing around the stage, delivering punchy, mock earnest speeches, stomping hither and thither. You couldn't catch your breath. 

The play itself is, I think, one of Shakespeare's silliest and weakest comedies. It is, however, interesting and quite funny in parts. The play utilises not one, but two foundational comic devices - gender bending; and twins causing havoc. Gender bending is one of the commonest and most successful comic structures, underpinning films like Some Like it Hot, Sorority Boys and White Chicks (all very funny indeed). Shakespeare also used it in As You Like It - a more interesting and entertaining play, in my opinion. Using twins, and the confusion they cause is another perennial comic device, employed in films such as the Prince and the Pauper. Shakespeare also it used in the Comedy of Errors - another of my least favourite plays. You have to admire Shakespeare's audacity in using both devices, however. Flashy. 

Anyway, back to the performance. Some of the acting was very good. Leah Bryony Cooper was great as the haughty Olivia, who falls for Viola (disguised as a man). Cam Spence's performance in this gender bending role was light, engaging, and funny. James Taylor Thomas was entertaining as the self-deluding, and ultimately humiliated Malvolio. I also liked Emma Richardson's naughty Maria. The standout performance for me, however, was Jack Finch as Sebastian, who played things straighter and less for laughs, injecting some much needed naturalism to the unlikely events. Anyway, overall, I enjoyed the play, and commend the cast for putting on such an energetic and creative performance. 

Later, back at the bar, the actors emerged for some well deserved drinks. I sat and listened as they laughed and bantered about the evening's events, and thought what potential there was in this young Company. As I sat, the actor who played Malvolio approached and thanked me for coming. We chatted a bit about the play, and I thought, how wonderful to be young and talented, and involved in something like this. 

On the train back to Lincolnshire later that evening, I thought about the plays and their performances. They really couldn't have been more different. One, a modernist play of genius - one of Beckett's best - a female monologue by Britain's finest actress, raising uncomfortable questions about existence, pain, futility. The other, an Enlightenment play by a genius - but one of his weakest- an ensemble production by a fresh batch of young talent, raising smiles and laughs, and arguably, some themes about gender and identity. Not much in common at all, then. Except for two things. Firstly, in contrast to the hypnotic, virtual worlds we inhabit through modern media and telecommunications, here were live events  in real time, here and now, with people braving the tightrope that is public performance. I was there. I saw it. The second thing they had in common was this - I thoroughly enjoyed them both. Bravo to Juliet Stevenson and the Whistlestop Theatre Company. Bravo. 

The next play I am going to is . . . The Knight of the Burning Pestle, by Francis Beaumont, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, The Globe, London, Thursday, 20th February at 19:30. 

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