Theatre review: Happy Days, Southbank Theatre

Beckett's play about maintaining optimism in an existential crisis is deftly handled by Judith Lucy.

Samuel Beckett was a dramatist of singular vision, poise and elegance, and Happy Days is a strangely beautiful attempt to grapple with the fragility of time and the fleeting poetry of optimism. In this Melbourne Theatre Company production, Judith Lucy plays the main role in this eerie two-hander, as Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist, and then her neck, in a mound of sand. 

Petra Kalive’s production has timely resonances with climate change, but it is really a play about the endurance of the human spirit. Winnie has both a partner in crime, Willie, played by Hayden Spencer, who lives in a mound next to her, and a Mary Poppins-like black bag of tricks. And this is enough for her to keep hope alive and repeat her refrain, ‘This will have been a happy day!’

The set design by Eugyeene Teh and the sound design by J David Franzke provide a discordant counterpoint to the play’s emotional unity. Like Pavlov’s dogs, this is a play where we are cued by the sound of a bell to adjust our mood, absorb our context and recalibrate back towards the assumption that, despite everything, this will have been a happy day. 

In this sense, Judith Lucy’s performance is one of telling vulnerability and style. Her signature grey curls and red lipstick frame a face that does the emotional work of the play, moving from consternation back to hope. There is a section towards the middle of the play where she extracts from her bag a music box, and this strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the play’s blithe spirit: contained by external circumstances, but moving through a sense of mystery and wonder throughout. 

Read: Dance review: Identity, Sydney Opera House

Beckett is an acquired taste, thought by some to be lacking in grace or optimism, but Happy Days shows there is a strange logic to this work. Like other avant-garde art, such as David Markson’s haunting novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, it shows the unlikely poetry of the surreal situation, and its moving power to inspire hope.

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett
Presented by Melbourne Theatre Company

Director: Petra Kalive
Assistant Director: Keegan Bragg
Costume and Set Designer: Eugyeene Teh
Lighting Designer: Paul Lim
Composer and Sound Designer: J David Franzke
Movement Consultant: Xanthe Beesley
Voice and Text Coach: Amy Hume
Cast: Judith Lucy, Hayden Spencer

Happy Days will be performed until 10 June 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin