Maxine Peake has a long affinity with Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre. She has appeared in several plays here over the years, most notably playing Hamlet and appearing in A Streetcar Named Desire. However, this is the first time I have ever been lucky enough to get tickets to see her live on stage. As she is such an incredible actress, I was really excited when I got front row tickets to Happy Days. The Royal Exchange Theatre is my favourite theatre in Manchester so I knew it would be a good way to spend a Saturday night in the midst of World Cup fever, granting a much needed escape from the football!
Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett, comprises of only two actors on stage; Winnie, who is buried up to her waist in a mound of earth, and her husband, Willie, who is buried behind her in a hole. Despite sharing the stage with her husband, Winnie is inextricably alone. She cannot see her husband and only knows that he is there by his infrequent monosyllabic responses to some of her questions. The audience never finds out why Winnie is stuck in a hole. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Watching this play is experiencing a day in the life of the married couple and from start to finish, it is utterly engrossing. Happy Days portrays a realistic marriage that survives despite the awkward situation its characters find themselves in. It is a very natural, human marriage that demonstrates the realities of a long-term relationships and the distance that slowly builds between people that have been in a relationship that long. It is humorous to watch as she constantly talks, irritates her husband with countless questions and berates him for not putting suncream on. He retaliates by picking his nose, enjoying soft porn and lazing around.
“Crawl back into your hole Willie! You’ve exposed yourself enough today!”
In the second half of the play, Winnie is then covered up to her neck in earth, for no reason. This must have been an incredibly difficult play to stage in the round. Luckily, the stage designer does a fantastic job by ensuring that the mound of earth slowly rotates, in order for the audience to be able to enjoy Maxine’s phenomenal performance. By placing Willie on the other side of the mound, it ensures that wherever you sit, there is always something to watch. In the second act, when Winnie is buried up to her neck, television screens effectively relay the action that you are unable to see from such a restrictive performance. Hats off to the designer, Naomi Dawson for ensuring that this play remains accessible to the audience at all times!
The best thing about this production is Maxine Peake’s remarkable performance. It is honestly the most extraordinary acting I have ever seen. I have always loved Maxine Peake’s acting, but this is the best acting I have ever witnessed on stage. She carries most of this entire performance alone, and is restricted to acting from the torso upwards. This was impressive enough before the second act that sees her restricted to just being able to act with her face. It must be an incredibly demanding, intimidating role, as the audience’s attention is entirely focused on Winnie. Having a minimalist set, and no other cast, means there’s nowhere for Peake to hide. She instantly engages the audience and holds their attention throughout the play. As the play progresses, and her body disappears, her character becomes incensed, with disjointed, repeated dialogue. Maxine Peake draws the audience fully into her performance and is utterly engrossing. Being so restricted in movement, even the smallest of Peake’s mannerisms are wonderfully expressive, from her quivering lip right through to her twitching nose. The thing I loved most about Maxine’s Winnie was her voice; a masterful blend of upper-class sophistication with an irritating edge to it whenever she calls her husband’s name. It made it seem like she was constantly nagging Willie, and you can certainly sympathise with him! I was left astounded and in sheer awe at how truly talented Maxine Peake is in this play. She effortlessly controls the play, captivates the audience and makes her character natural and entirely believable. I have never seen acting so incredible. It is honestly a masterclass.
As for the play itself, I enjoyed it without really understanding it properly. I think it may have gone over my head slightly, as most of Beckett’s plays do. It left me deliberating what on earth it was about. But I think that is part of the charm of his plays. They always leave many questions unanswered and the audience pondering them much later on. The same happens with Happy Days. You never understand why Winnie is buried in a hole. The end remains ambiguous and her fate, and her marriage, is left unresolved. However, I like that. I like the fact that I am forced to think about the play, its characters and its setting. It encourages philosophical thinking.
Even without fully understanding the play, I really enjoyed Happy Days. It was an absolute honour to witness Maxine Peake deliver the finest performance I have ever seen. I will definitely strive to get tickets to her next endeavour with the Royal Exchange Theatre!