Stéphane Braunschweig took his time before essaying Beckett. At Strasbourg’s National Theatre and now at the Théâtre de La Colline in Paris, the director has gravitated mostly towards Chekhov and Ibsen. Unfortunately, the often tragic tone of his productions ultimately seeps into this new version of Glückliche Tage (Happy Days), created in German and shown at La Colline with subtitles.
Happy Days rests entirely on the shoulders of Winnie, buried up to the waist (and later up to her neck) in a nondescript mound of earth, and the incentive for Braunschweig proved to be an actress: Claudia Hübbecker, a member of the troupe attached to the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus, where the world premiere took place.
With her blow-dry, pearls and slightly affected manner, Hübbecker looks every inch the bourgeoise unwittingly trapped in an absurd situation when the curtain rises. As she polices her limited territory (the large bag that contains a toothbrush and toothpaste, not to mention a gun; her spouse, Willie, who lives in a hole behind her), she channels a grotesque Mrs Dalloway, her voice ebbing and flowing with a sense of timing that the German speakers in the audience clearly approved of.
Her small world is less desolate than Beckett once imagined. The mound, one of five on stage, is a steel structure not unlike a crinoline, partly covered in Act One in what looks like electric blue lava. It is removed in time for Act Two, and while only Winnie’s face emerges at this point, the rest of her body is visible behind the metal bars, and conspicuously normal – a contradiction of sorts, as it removes the mysterious notion of a devouring earth.
Without that lingering menace, the production veers into generic pathos in Act Two. A close-up of Winnie is projected in real time on a large screen behind her, and as the camera cuts to her crumbling face in the last scene, Braunschweig focuses on her inability to keep up appearances, shunning the dark humour in the text. It’s an interminable wait for mascara-tainted tears, and the presence of video dehumanises further a character of whom we know relatively little as the eye is drawn to the screen, rather than to Hübbecker.
The actress holds her own, however, and shows us Winnie as a false optimist, a woman with a façade that seems to come from a normal past, slowly destroyed by Beckett’s nihilist solitude. Rainer Galke’s Willie, more present on stage than in most productions, provides apt contrast as he crawls up and down a nearby mound, grunting his rare lines.