Theatre: Happy Days Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Click to follow
The great thing about Beckett is his obsessive precision. Every pause, every stage direction is as crucial as each word uttered. Or not uttered. This makes his plays just about director-proof, but to be on the safe side, Beckett's estate polices each production with totalitarian zeal, as Deborah Warner recently learnt to her cost.

Beckett's plays are gifts to actors, the savviest of whom will see that liberation comes via tightly-knit structures. Of course, the temptations to tamper with Beckett's plays are plain, particularly with Happy Days. An inexperienced director might think, how the hell do you make an audience sit up for 90 minutes when all they've got to look at is a woman buried up to her neck in sand spouting forth her chirpy torment?

Stewart Laing's new production is a light victim of this insecurity as he attempts to drag the play into that post-modern hybrid of "live art", a vague arena with an emphasis on technology. Thankfully Laing avoids any attempts to deconstruct the original master of deconstruction and lets the power come through the words, with the odd cursory video image sneakily tucked in, to little effect.

Raymond Carver - a different kind of minimalist - once wrote how any purple prose additions to his pared-down, bare-bones world view would be mere salad dressing. This is pretty much Laing's mistake here. The small array of screens certainly don't detract from the play's power, but neither do they add anything. It's as if they were in- cluded as a concession, to provide no more than a distracting novelty in case the attention span should wander. Not that there's any danger of that.

Myra McFadyen gives the performance of her life as Winnie, the buried matriarch, and delivers her lines with a naturalness light years away from the over-reverent bombast the play has become used to. Here McFadyen drags the words out of the hallowed halls and into the living-rooms of downtown Glasgow, where relationships are a habit of dependence and communication a one-sided mixture of babble and grunts. Willy, Winnie's almost silent foil in this arrangement, drips from every orifice as she desperately fills the void with her chatter. The minutiae of Winnie's domestic routine is both wilful metaphor and absurdism at its extreme. Either way, it's this alone that keeps her going.

By the second act she's so shrunken as to have all but given up and died. This is the visual marvel here as Laing shifts the action so far back as to give the audience a brand-new perspective, a theatrical equivalent of a long shot or fade out. With Beckett, though, riding off into the sunset is never, not ever, an option.

n To 30 June. Booking: 0131-228 1404