THEATRE / Now is the time: Jeffrey Wainwright on Happy Days at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Click to follow
'It is often remarked,' writes the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his essay 'The Absurd', 'that nothing we do now will matter in a million years. But if that is true then by the same token, nothing that will be the case in a million years matters now.' It is often remarked that Samuel Beckett's work prompts just this sense that any meaning, significance, or even interest that we claim for our lives is really dissolved into nothing by the perspective of eternity. Beckett's notorious reduction of dramatic action to the white mouth in the blackness of Not I, or, as in Happy Days, to a woman buried up to her waist, and later neck, in the earth, symbolises this limitation of human scope.

As Nagel argues, we can think like this because we can transcend ourselves in thought, 'become spectators of our own lives'. But despite his dizzying peep into annihilation, Beckett never forgets that we are first livers of our own lives: 'No pain - hardly any - wonderful thing that.' When we are grasping for such 'mercies', to be fixated upon our standing in the context of what will be in a million years is indeed absurd. All the bits of now are what really matter to Beckett.

Consider the spectacle of Happy Days. Will Winnie ever move? Will we see more of Willie (distinctively played here by Robin Bowerman) than his bleeding scalp, insouciant hankie and the boater he always taps jauntily into place? Will he speak more than an odd word, grunt and cackle? When we do see him, why is he wearing evening dress and will he get up from all fours? What is the nature and history of his relationship with Winnie? When will we get the explanatory flashback, where are they really and why is it so hot? The tensions are unbearable. Beckett plays on these fascinations. His having Winnie's parasol suddenly burst into flames by way of a coup to keep us amused is very nearly insolent in its arbitrariness.

There is also what we do see and hear of Winnie herself. Her morning prayers may be perfunctory but her devotion to teeth-cleaning and deciphering the text along the brush handle are certainly not. Her talk is mostly an amalgam of phrases, many unconsciously occurring from the shards of religious or archaic literary discourse. All of this displays not a mind in coherent syntactical command, but a shifting tessellation of cliches and formulas. Yet in so many of them - 'prayers perhaps not for naught', 'paradise enow' - there is an evident pleasure which is another mercy.

The sheer technique required to play Winnie must boggle any spectator. The great intellectual effort has to be embodied in a complex series of modulations and expressions, each sounded out between actor and director. Prunella Scales, under Jude Kelly's direction, makes it all excellently spellbinding and comprehensible. The abrupt shifts between busy-ness, reflective irony and moments of naked anguish are all marked. At present however her performance seems too even, too conservative. She could swoop more determinedly for laughs and also appear more desperately stricken, though judging such abandon within Beckett's meticulous directions must be fearsomely difficult. So much particular effort to be scratched upon the void.

Until 20 March (0532 442111)