THEATRE: Happy Days; Almeida Theatre, London / Bouffes du Nord, Paris

People used to complain that the English can only act from the neck upwards. On those grounds, it might be tempting to see Happy Days as Beckett's finest bequest to the nation. A play about a woman bearing up as she sinks ever further down into a mound of sandy earth, it sees its heroine literally up to her neck in it by the second act. No longer any problem of what to do with your hands.

Some very good Beckett critics have claimed that the play is a tribute to Englishness in moral terms as well. "The unquestionable assumption that the warp and woof of an unfulfilling day consist in maintaining one's cheer is a premise of English gentility as perhaps of no other." You possibly need to be an American, that writer is, to believe that. The fundamental mistake is to contend that Happy Days is an English play at all. The cadences and personality of the language Winnie spouts are distinctively Irish and the play becomes a notably different entity when experienced in Beckett's later French translation.

Just how different can be gauged from the two excellent revivals now running. At the Almeida, there's Karel Reisz's staging from the Gate Theatre, Dublin, with Rosaleen Linehan, and at the Bouffes du Nord, Paris, Peter Brook's production with his wife, Natasha Parry, in the lead. There are contrasts, of course, that haven't been imposed by language - like the very important question of how the physical circumstances of Winnie's plight are envisioned.

At the start of both halves of Brook's production, we see stage hands slotting a very scrubby, parched-looking mound around Ms Parry. The harsh whiteish light dies for a moment and then rears up on her in character. It's a directorial decision which may have been made for pragmatic reasons but it has the effect of sensitising you to the way, as in Godot, the experience of the protagonists is likened to that of actors having to put on a play night after night. The repetitiveness of Winnie's days, the mysteriously replenished "props" in her bag and the bell that reminds her to perform all minister to this feeling.

At the Almeida, meanwhile, Ms Linehan is never seen detached from her mound, even at the final curtain where her gracious acknowledgement of the applause and of her fellow actor has to be done through tiny twitches of the head and twists of the eye that are like an affectionate parody of the character's enforcedly minuscule body language. The landscape in which this Winnie finds herself has an altogether more surreal quality to it - a cliff of deep ochre and technicolour blue sky which are guilty, in their incongruous richness, of dead-pan effrontery.

When trying to sort out why the French and English (or rather Irish-English) versions of this work almost amount to different plays, you could do worse than start with class. Watching the Almeida production, you're struck by how curiously like an Irish Alan Bennett Beckett seems. Pushed to existential extremes it may be, but this interminably repeated day at the seaside is also a brilliantly naturalistic and tragi-comic portrait of a marriage. Looking like a cross between a Beverley Sister in the Fifties and an Irish Mother Superior, Ms Linehan's superbly suburban Winnie rabbits away, with a would-be gentility and many a borrowed air, to cover over the boredom and fear caused by being steadily ignored in favour of a newspaper. It's my grandmother all over again, even down to the way she tries to fool herself, simply by fussing around with the contents of her bag, that she's leading a busy, rewarding life.

The English text is much funnier than the French. There's a gently cock- eyed "Irish" quality in the former which both plays against and re-enforces the pathos, as when Winnie says: "This will have been another happy day! (Pause.) After all. (Pause.) So far." The comic oddity of that sequence and the ambiguity of "After all" are lost when translated to "Malgre tout...jusqu'ici" ("Despite everything..."). There's a built-in elevatedness to the French which raises Winnie socially (Ms Parry doesn't have to adopt a different parodically prunes-and-prism posh voice as Ms Linehan does when quoting wisps of the classics) and it makes the play (to my ear and eye) a poetic, painfully poignant, but rather more impersonal statement about the human condition.

Ms Parry brings a wonderful quality of girlish grace and fragility to the part. Where Ms Linehan had me thinking that Dora Bryan could manage stretches of this role, Ms Parry's performance, oddly enough, made me wonder how Marilyn Monroe might have tackled certain sections (a Monroe with a memory implant, that is). When Winnie has sunk to her neck, you fear that Ms Linehan's head might at any moment do a Humpty-Dumptyish roll down the mound, so surreally and distressingly object-like does it look in the line-up of parasol, revolver and bag. With Ms Parry, you feel that the flower of the head is still connected to its stalk, which has turned into a death-in-life-support machine. Ms Linehan is better at projecting the panic and anger of a woman who knows that her words are running out. Ms Parry has the edge in transmitting the heart-breaking sorrow behind Winnie's stoicism. Both ladies give unforgettable performances in a play which is doubly reconfirmed as one of the great masterpieces of post-war theatre

At the Almeida Theatre, London N1 (0171-359 4404) to 9 Nov; Bouffes du Nord, Paris (00 331 46073450) to 9 Nov, then on tour

Paul Taylor

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