wed 28/02/2024

Happy Days, Landmark Productions, Cork Opera House - to the end of the earth | reviews, news & interviews

Happy Days, Landmark Productions, Cork Opera House - to the end of the earth

Happy Days, Landmark Productions, Cork Opera House - to the end of the earth

Siobhán McSweeney goes way beyond the expected in a transfixing performance

Siobhan McSweeney's Winnie tries to get what shade she canAll images by Patrick Redmond

Siobhán McSweeney is to be loved as a person for her speech when she received a BAFTA for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme earlier this year, bringing up the way Derry people had weathered the “indignities, ignorance and stupidity of your so-called leaders in Dublin, Stormont and Westminster” (typically, the BBC cut that bit).

Still more is she to be admired as an actor, ranging most recently from said performance as Sister Michael in Derry Girls to the most vivacious of the sisters (secular sort) in Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre. She’d already taken on the role which is to women actors what Hamlet is to men, Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, filmed during lockdown. Now she joins the greats by essaying it live on stage in Cork, Dublin and Birmingham, through the agency of the brilliant Landmark Productions - whose Ibsen Ghosts was peerless - and, initially, as a centrepiece of the Cork Midsummer Festival..

How brave Winnie, summoned slowly to waking by three strokes of the bell, weathers what she hopes "will have been another happy day” buried up to her waist in sand and trying to get a word out of husband Willie, most often out of sight, during the first act limits the range of interpretative options. After the very funny pathos of Juliet Stevenson and Lisa Dwan in recent London performances, McSweeney is lower-key, making the day pass beguilingly with elegant arm gestures, a vocal range from contralto to girlish high soprano and an especially daunting time with an umbrella held aloft with both hands (you soon hope she’ll spare herself the pain). Siobhan McSweeney in 'Happy Days'Witnessing this ritual from row O of the sizeable Cork Opera House’s stalls was an experience different from those in the previous venues, the Young Vic and the Riverside Studios. Sometimes you’d strain to catch every word – valuable in McSweeney’s case, less so in the case of Howard Teale’s Willie, who needed a mike. But the savage beauty of Jamie Vartan’s design and Paul Keogan’s lighting, with the blue almost hurting the eyes as it should, with the one and then two figures in a desert landscape adding to the painterly quality, is constantly striking.

How much more so when, after the interval, we find Winnie just a head in the sand. And this is where McSweeney took me further than I’d have thought possible, still getting the laughs when she checks nose, lips, tongue and cheeks, but drawing us in to the personal nightmare to which Winnie has barely admitted before. The Lewis Carroll-plus story she invents for herself, the bleak reduction of elements from her previous monologue and the final song she promised herself before but didn’t deliver, now replacing the prayers which have gone, Lehar’s love-waltz in The Merry Widow, mesmerize and ultimately break the heart. Happy DaysCaitríona McLaughlin’s direction, always bold with long silences, stretches out the “resurrection” of Willie to the very limits as he crawls out from his hole and drags himself along the front of the set, falls lower, raises himself and fumbles towards the ever-watchful head. That only makes Winnie’s initially prosaic reaction, words again at last, all the more blackly funny. If you reckon you’ve seen or heard enough of Beckett’s masterpiece, which will always be bigger than what any one person thinks of it, don't fail to catch this incantation in Dublin or Birmingham, or wait for what must surely be another incarnation elsewhere.

McSweeney makes the day pass beguilingly with elegant arm gestures and a vocal range from contralto to girlish high soprano

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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