nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 12, 2008
In a blasted-looking landscape of shattered concrete, sand, and twists of wire, a woman, Winnie, is buried up to her waist in a mound of debris. A buzzing bell wakes her each morning, and another tells her when to go to sleep each night. Her husband, Willie, is somewhere about—at least some of the time—in a burrow of his own around the back of her hillock. She can only occasionally see him, by twisting her torso in his direction if he happens to have climbed partway up her hill. It seems that there was a time, long ago, back when time had meaning, when she lived in more ordinary circumstances—but it's also possible that her current position is and has always been, and her memories are merely dreams. She tries to keep up a daily routine—brushing her teeth, combing her hair, applying lipstick—with the basic toiletries in her handbag, but beyond that, between waking and sleeping she has only the most minuscule actions to take and decisions to make: when to put up and put down an umbrella, when in the day to sing a song, how to decipher the writing on the handle of her toothbrush. She talks to Willie, keeping up a steady stream of mostly innocuous conversation—for her own sake, mostly, since he answers in monosyllables if at all. It's a barren existence, at best.
And yet—when Winnie (the wonderful Fiona Shaw) awakes and calls it "another heavenly day," she's not being at all sarcastic. She is determined to wrest joy and meaning from her life so matter what little crumb of it is left—and these crumbs grow even smaller by Act 2, when the mound has risen up to her neck and she can move only her face. Even then, she will not resign herself to wait blankly for the inevitable. She will not accept defeat, will not wait in silence even though it seems that Willie—like possible "others" who were there before—may be dead. She continues to extract bits of knowledge, cataloging what she can see of her own face. It becomes a "happy day" when there is a sound.
The striking thing about Fiona Shaw is that you believe her when she says it's a heavenly day—her Winnie is not deluded, not a cockeyed optimist, not putting a falsely positive face on things. She's a clear-eyed realist, who understands her circumstances perfectly well. And even though she teeters on the edge of the abyss of despair, she refuses to give in. She's a woman who's trained herself by sheer force of will to find meaning, to find joy, to find additions to her store of knowledge (the legend on her toothbrush, the look of the tip of her tongue) even in these straitened circumstances. She adapts: "That is what I find so wonderful," she says, as she realizes she's lost the ability to sweat. "The way man adapts himself. To changing conditions." Once the mound rises over her breasts, she has moved on—it is as if they never were. Many things—the "old style"—have come and gone, and she can only live in the world as it is.
Another of the joys of Shaw's performance—and Deborah Warner's remarkably precise and specific direction of it —is that every moment is different from the one before; every micro-shift in mood, temperature, state of mind flickers across her face and in her delivery of each line. She is blazingly aware of and holding on to every moment of her life as it passes by—its tiny jokes, its rueful memories, its wry observations, its brief moments of self-pity.
And despite Tom Pye's post-apocalyptic set, despite Jean Kalman's scorching white lights, despite our knowledge of the utter bleakness of Winnie's surroundings and the inevitability of the sand continuing to rise—despite all this, we laugh. The only unbearable thing would be to accept solitude, to lapse into silence. Winnie often dances around the possibility of simply sitting, with "compressed lips," and staring into space. But to her, this is the ultimate compromise of her humanity. As long as she speaks—to Willie, to the audience, to an imaginary watcher she conjures up for herself—she is joyously, meaningfully alive.And in her joy—however fleeting it may prove to be, however soon the sand will rise and cover her head—we, too find happy days. I haven't seen a lot of well-staged Beckett, but I find it hard to imagine a production that more precisely captures his eerie balance of irony, existential sadness, and heartfelt comedy.