Lisa Dwan as Winnie
at the Riverside Studios
Photo by Helen Maybanks
031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett
A woman is buried up to her waste in a mound of scorched grass. She lies in blazing sunlight and around her stretches a barren landscape. Her only company is a man lying immobile on the ground behind her, obscured by the mound. This is the stark and shocking opening of Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece, Happy Days. It is a scene that remains as striking and unsettling on stage today as when it was first performed exactly sixty years ago. Its central metaphor, that we endure the empty routine of our daily existence through personal delusion and social ritual, remains as universal as ever. In fact, the apocalyptic world and personal predicament portrayed in Happy Days feels very much like a play for our own time: the portrait of enforced confinement speaks loudly to the monotony and isolation many of us have experienced in the pandemic.
Samuel Beckett established his reputation as the most innovative and challenging dramatist in the world in the 1950s with his first two plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Happy Days, his third full-length play, premiered in New York in September 1961, and a year later at the Royal Court in London in November 1962. The play is essentially an extended monologue that Winnie delivers while physically trapped in the mound throughout. Peggy Ashcroft, who played Winnie at the National Theatre in 1976, labelled the role a “summit part on a par with Hamlet for a female actor”.
To mark the 60th anniversary of its first production, Irish actress and Beckett specialist, Lisa Dwan has just finished a triumphant run as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London in a new production directed by Trevor Nunn. It was a stunning performance, full of instinctive and intelligent understanding of Beckett’s lyrical language, and deeply moving in her portrayal of Winnie’s defiant but vain struggle to keep despair and the encroaching earth at bay. I am hugely excited that Lisa is able to join us to share her enthusiasm for Beckett and this majestic play.
Lisa Dwan is an award-winning actress, director, writer and scholar. She is most well known internationally for her performances and adaptations of Samuel Beckett’s work, including multiple performances of Beckett’s Not I over the past 15 years at London’s Battersea Arts Centre , the Southbank Centre, and at the International Beckett Festival in 2012.
Starting in 2013 Lisa toured the world with “The Beckett Trilogy”, which comprised Not I as well as two of Beckett’s other short plays, Footfalls and Rockaby, visiting the Royal Court, West End, The Barbican Centre, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, among others. In October 2016, Lisa adapted and starred in No’s Knife, a one-woman production adapted from Beckett’s Stories and Texts for Nothing at London’s Old Vic and the Abbey Theatre Dublin.
She has written and presented documentaries on Beckett on BBC and Sky Arts. She has lectured at Columbia, MIT, New York University, Oxford and Cambridge and is currently a visiting professor at Princeton University and CAST Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist and MIT.
Lisa has also appeared on stage around the world in plays by Shakespeare, Pinter and Wilde, and she worked with writer Colm Toibin on new version of Antigone – Pale Sister, which was broadcast on BBC in March 2021. She also starred opposite James Nesbitt in the recent BBC TV drama Bloodlands.
The Footnotes to our episode on Samuel Beckett’s timeless play Happy Days include observations on the power of Beckett’s theatrical imagery, as well as the indeterminate nature of time in the play.
BECOME A PATRON!
Since I launched The Play Podcast in April 2020, I have managed to eschew any form of advertising or sponsorship, and I would like to continue to produce the podcast without doing so. I therefore invite you to help me to continue to make the podcast by becoming a Patron.
Additional benefits available to Patrons include Footnotes on the plays covered in the podcast, as well as exclusive access to The Play Review.
For details click here
Thank you very much for listening and for your support.
Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.
I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.
Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson
Harold Pinter’s disturbing exploration of toxic masculinity and sexual maneuvering, The Homecoming premiered in 1965. The play’s portrait of misogyny, and even more disturbing, the apparent female complicity, was shocking at the time it was written. Nearly 60 years on the sexual politics is if anything even more difficult to watch. So what was Pinter’s purpose in presenting such a provocative piece, and how do we process it in the post Me-Too age?
I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.
Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.
Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts provoked outrage when it was published in 1881, its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia too much for the critics. More than 140 years later its portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy remains as powerful as ever.
Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.
Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.