Theatre: Samuel Beckett's Meaning of Life

Samuel Beckett didn't like it when people tried to explain his work - asked what he'd meant by a particular work he replied, "I meant what I said." But thinking over Peter Brook's French-language production of Happy Days, Oh les Beaux Jours, which passed through the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith last week, it's hard not to read Winnie's situation - buried in the earth up to her waist and then to her chin - as a simple allegory. This is the position of the critic who has to write about Beckett.

Given the detailed stage directions that Beckett laid down and which his estate rigidly enforces, reviewing a production of one of his plays is closer to writing about classical music than about ordinary theatre. You are dealing with nuances of interpretation, small variations in phrasing and colour, intangibles. The dangers are that you slip into the diffuse and impressionistic or get bogged down in details - like, what sort of mound is Winnie encased in? (In this case, it's a sandy outcrop with short, wiry tufts of dry grass, as opposed to the heap of red earth in Karel Reisz's production for the Dublin Gate, seen at the Almeida last year.)

The difficulties aren't eased by performance in French. To take one small point: it seemed clear, watching Natasha Parry's precise, classy performance, that her Winnie comes from, if not the top drawer, at least a bit higher up the social sideboard than most anglophone Winnies. You just had to look at the elegant sweep of her arm as she brought her parasol crashing down on the head of Willie (her life-partner, who sits just outside her field of vision, occasionally ejaculating mysterious bursts of words), and observe the immaculately smooth armpits she displayed as she did so. And that sense was enhanced by a certain nonchalance, at least in the first half. With other Winnies, you feel her suffering is exacerbated by social unease, her vague awareness that this is not a position in which a respectable body should be found; this Winnie seemed oblivious to awkwardness of that kind.

Then again, that reading may be completely wrong. Parry - who is Brook's wife - spoke her lines with beautiful clarity, so that even if your command of French was very rusty or imperfect, it wasn't too hard to follow what was going on; but reading the signals of class in a foreign language is like trying to figure out hieroglyphics without a Rosetta stone. Perhaps that dimension was present and I didn't spot it.

But I don't think it was simply the language barrier that left me feeling less in sympathy with Beckett after this sharply defined, faithful rendition than I did before. One reason is that Parry missed the coarse, desperate comedy that Rosaleen Linehan brought to the part at the Almeida, or the brittler irony of Geraldine McEwan. Winnie's situation is unbearable, but it's also quite funny; and you need a few laughs to take the chill off Beckett's glum picture of the slide underground that will come to all of us sooner or later.

I wonder, too, if Beckett hasn't lost some of his sting. At the risk of reading a meaning into him, it seems that one of his preoccupations is how we can cope in a universe without a God to give purpose or meaning or consolation. For a generation that has grown up with selfish genes and chaos theory, meaninglessness is much less of a problem - indeed, once you've got used to the idea, the chancy, random nature of life and the way matter spontaneously falls into patterns come to seem part of the charm of the thing. Whatever the reason, I don't have a strong desire to see Happy Days again, at least not in the near future. As Beckett himself would surely appreciate, life's too short.

Far happier times at The Spanish Tragedy. Thomas Kyd's gory drama, dating from sometime in the 1580s, is known chiefly for two things - as the first revenge tragedy, and for providing part of the tumble of allusions and broken images that concludes Eliot's The Waste Land: "Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe." Michael Boyd's stunning staging, now shifted from the Swan in Stratford to the Pit, proves that it's a great play, not just a footnote to modernism or a primitive shocker.

The shock is there, along with a thoroughly modern streak of morbid humour. A treacherous servant jests his way to the gallows, convinced that his pardon is about to arrive. The final act of vengeance is committed during a play performed in front of the victims' fathers - so the fathers applaud their sons for the authenticity they bring to their death scenes. And Hieronimo (an outstanding Peter Wight), author of this final tragedy, bites his tongue out rather than explain what he has done. Quentin Tarantino has done much the same sort of thing, pushing violence to an extreme at which it becomes funny. Boyd is fully alive to these aspects of the play; but he also brings out subtler, less contemporary shocks, such as the manipulative sexuality of the princess Bel-imperia, who allows herself to fall in love with Hieronimo's son (well below her in the social order) so that she can use him to avenge the death of her former lover, Don Andrea. Siobhan Redmond, white-skinned and red-haired, brings out superbly her mixture of frost and heat.

The rawness of the emotion is contained within a tightly balanced structure - Hieronimo's loss of his son, and his (never properly explained) inability to find redress is echoed in the plight of a painter whose son has also been murdered; and at the end, in the way he carefully ensures that he is not merely killing sons, but showing the act to their fathers. Boyd gets this symmetry across with no difficulty; it's a shame, then, that he tacks on at the end a sequence suggesting that the whole cycle of revenge is about to begin again. Kyd's bleakly optimistic moral is surely that enough blood can wash away sin and restore the balance of things.

At the Gate, a run of all three of Buchner's surviving plays ends with his slightest drama, Leonce and Lena - an uneasy farce about a prince suffering from terminal boredom and threatened with approaching kingship, who runs away to see the world, accompanied by a servant dedicated to the pursuit of sloth. It's easy to forget that Buchner died in 1837 - some of the humour here is close to the Marx Brothers, in mood if not effectiveness. But for all its modernity, this is an uneven and unsatisfactory play, and this musical version, scripted by Lee Hall (who wrote the radio play Spoonface Steinberg), doesn't make it seem any more manageable. Still, it doesn't come along very often, and Laura Hopkins's beautifully painted monochrome scenery is worth seeing.

This is more than can be said for Heritage, a second play by Stephen Churchett, author of Tom and Clem, which has opened at the Hampstead Theatre. George Cole stars as Harry, a pensioner at a regimental home which faces transformation into a conference centre. The confrontation between tradition and modernity is a stale caricature, the personal dilemmas facing Cole's family are predictable and dull, and the denouement - in which the dead Harry returns to stand guard - is breathtakingly dumb. Churchett sets out to rubbish commercialism and the soundbite culture; but really, an evening in a shopping mall with Peter Mandelson would be more fun than this.

'The Spanish Tragedy': The Pit, EC2 (0171 638 8891), in rep to 29 Jan. 'Leonce and Lena', Gate, W11 (0171 229 0706), to 20 Dec. 'Heritage': Hampstead, NW3 (0171 722 9301), to 17 Jan.

Robert Butler is on paternity leave.

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