Arts Review: Happy Days

Dir. Andy Arnold, Tron Theatre, 20/5/15

Any production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Happy Days’ is going to be faced with a difficult challenge: doing justice to the genius of Beckett’s complex script, without losing sight of just how entertaining it is in its absurdity. The Tron Theatre Company have managed to strike the balance very successfully in their take on the story of Winnie, a woman buried up to her waist in the earth, as she monologues a running commentary of this bizarre life.

Karen Dunbar seems like the perfect choice to play Winnie, an iconic women’s role in modern theatre. She brings the script to life in her own unique style, injecting something raw, witty and intensely human into the character. Dunbar’s Winnie is compelling and convincing, despite the risk of her personality getting lost amidst the sizeable stage and awe-inspiring set. Like a purple clad roman bust, she is eye-catching and imposing as she perches atop looming swathes of sand coloured cloth, and her vivacious performance provides the perfect juxtaposition to this otherwise beige environment, making it difficult for the audience’s attention to waver at any point during the play.

In a script that allows for barely any physical movement, the real punch to the performance comes from Dunbar’s voice. It is brash and unabashedly Scottish, and conveys a bittersweet local flavour that heightens the impact of the lines. Her facial expressions are manic, clownish and captivating, set off with startlingly bright pink lipstick. Far from offering us a meek woman paralysed by an emotionally void existence, Dunbar’s Winnie is vividly, frighteningly alive, and ready to go down kicking and screaming in the best way possible – by brandishing an ever-potent sense of black humour in the face of despair.

The lighting and sound techniques are also beautifully crafted. A slow, hypnotic drone behind the dialogue is occasionally pierced with a torturous ringing bell and a sense of sheer terror that no one, including the audience, is immune to. Dunbar’s skill in manipulating the natural reverb of the stage to accentuate certain words is haunting, and hammers home the overwhelming isolation that lurks behind the wisecracks. Meanwhile, the surreal patterning and hues of the stage lights change gradually and subtly, making the audience constantly question the reality of what they see.

Beckett is notorious for refusing to explain or quantify the meaning behind his works, and, true to form, this production of ‘Happy Days’ raises more questions than answers. It’s not a comfortable viewing experience, nor can it be easily pinned down into any one category, eliciting any one reaction. The true mark of success for the production is that it widens, rather than constricts, the scope of possible meanings to be found in the labyrinthine play.

[Cat Acheson – @Cat_Acheosn]


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