Left - Julie Forsyth as Winnie. Photo - Jeff Busby
I must admit I was weary at the prospect of seeing another Michael Kantor production this year. Having seen Kantor’s idiosyncratic Optimism and Woyzeck earlier this year, I was expecting something much the same. I was, however, very pleasantly surprised. Kantor’s Happy Days is a success for its simplicity – of sentiment and style.
Kantor captures what he describes as ‘the luminous simplicity’ of Samuel Beckett’s text, laced as it is with classical quotation, obscure references, and numerous pauses. The clarity with which Beckett’s text is presented reveals the intense research and rehearsal for the production.
Julie Forsyth is brilliant as Winnie, an aging woman of about fifty trying desperately to remain positive. She performed with an intensely engaging and commanding presence despite being only visible from the waist-up in the first act, and from the neck-up in the second act. Forsyth carried the show, engaging the audience with a highly nuanced, often funny, and entertaining performance. As Maryanne Lynch, dramaturge, suggests, by immobilising Winnie, Beckett allows the performer to explore other possibilities. Forsyth’s supple expressive face and voice brought Winnie’s smiling optimism and bewildered despair to life amongst the shards of black debris. My favourite moment was Forsyth’s ‘compressed lips,’ blank-faced impersonation of her husband, Willie (Peter Carroll).
Forsyth captured both Winnie’s funny charm with her incessant rambling, and the subtle throbbing tension between her hope and despair through the punctuating pauses and gaps in the text. There are 150 pauses in the text, but I did not consider this until I read the program notes afterwards. The success of Forsyth’s Winnie was found in the intent, tension, and weight given to the gaps in the text – the text itself often rendered merely a reassuring personal comfort.
Every element of Kantor’s production provided a complement and support to Beckett’s text and Forsyth’s Winnie. Kantor’s restrained direction, along with Anna Cordingley’s barren set and children’s-dress-up costume design, and Paul Jackson’s glaringly exposing lighting created Beckett’s desired ‘starkest simplicity’, a sense of disjuncture between the landscape and Winnie’s smiling optimism.
Kantor’s season of plays this year has had a beautiful thread running through it, an exploration of the most simple and timeless of human questions. For me, Happy Days is the most successful and powerful of Kantor’s productions I have seen this year – where Optimism, with its brilliant blinding theatricality, failed to reveal the darkness behind our senseless optimism, Happy Days, in its simplicity, reveals it with an absurd cutting realism.
Malthouse Theatre presents
by Samuel Beckett
Director Michael Kantor
Venue: Merlyn, The CUB Malthouse
Dates: July 3 – July 25 2009
Opening night: Wednesday July 8 at 7.30pm
Times: Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturdays 7.30pm, Sundays 5.00pm
Matinees: Thursday 16 July at 1.00pm, Saturday 25 July at 2.00pm
Tickets: $15 - $49 + booking fee
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 9685 5111
Belvoir Street Theatre
4 November – 16 December