Happy Days, Arts Theatre, London

Kendal up to her neck in stunning revival of Beckett

By Paul Taylor
Wednesday 19 November 2003 01:00

This is an evening that reverberates with theatrical memories. In 1976, Peter Hall inaugurated the National Theatre's new building on the South Bank with an acclaimed production of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days , starring Peggy Ashcroft.

Now he is having a second stab, at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square. For this expert, loving re-examination, he has cast Felicity Kendal as Winnie, who is buried up to her waist in the first act and up to her neck in the second.

With a striking set by his daughter Lucy, Hall reinvigorates the shock value of that now classic metaphor for life as a process of gradual entombment. We are presented with a more intrusive, aerial perspective on Winnie than normal.

She juts out from the centre of a tilted-up spiral of earth that looks like the electric ring of a Baby Belling as magnified and reimagined by the Surrealist movement.

Kendal is a very English actress, but I'm delighted to report that here she affects (and very convincingly, too) the Irish accent written into the rhythms of Winnie's near-monologue.

Some interpreters keep us guessing about the level of the heroine's self-deception. But in her moving performance, Kendal lets you hear the gasping panic under Winnie's bright protestations. Pale and drawn, she alerts you to how the character's clichéd clutchings at optimism tend to be curiously qualified. "This will have been another happy day! [Pause] After all. [Pause] So far." The way that confidence leaks out of that peculiar declaration is hilarious and heartbreaking in Kendal's delivery.

Hall proves once again that there is no finer conductor of Beckett's verbal music, and that no dramatist is as paradoxically life-affirming.

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