Review: Happy Days is dry as dirt

Who would have thought that a play where the main character is buried up to her waist in dirt and half-mad with boredom would be anything less than exhausting to watch?

Unsurprisingly, UBC Theatre’s production of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett – which opened their 2017/18 season – was a slog of a play that had the same effect on me as a heavy dose of NyQuil.

The set, which is just a heap of dirt covering most of the stage, does what it needs to do and the costumes and lighting are adequate if not uninspired. This sparseness is logical for a play about being stuck beneath the soil under a scalding sun, but it also means that there is very little in the way of visuals to hold the audience’s interest.

As a result, everything falls on the actors to keep the play engaging.

There are only two characters in Happy Days – the main character (Winnie) delivers 90 per cent of the dialogue, while her husband (Willie) skulks behind the mound of dirt, doing little of anything for the duration of the play.

Beverly Bardal delivers a solid performance that captures the frantic, unhinged state of Winnie with convincing execution. However, there were times when her incessant badgering of her husband (played by Joe Procyk), as well as her frenzied monologues came across as almost too annoying to appreciate. A moment in the second act when she screamed several times at the top of her lungs made me want to leave the theatre, though the sudden rush of adrenaline to my lethargic body definitely woke me up.

Beckett is known for his cyclical dialogue and surreal tangents in his character’s thoughts. Waiting For Godot is an example of this style of writing at its best, but in this particular play, it came across as an exhausting chore to experience.

From the beginning, watching the play unfold was an excersise in endurance and patience. The restlessness of the audience was palpable and a decent chunk of act one was punctuated by the high-pitched nose-whistling of someone who’d fallen asleep nearby, making what was happening on-stage even more unbearable.

Unlike other Beckett plays, which feel timeless and engrosing even decades after their writing, Happy Days came across as needlessly enigmatic and pretentious – devoid of the enjoyment and poigniancy of the author’s other works. That being said, it is not fair to place the fault entirely on Beckett.

Ultimately, it is down to the director and actors to make the material interesting – something that they failed to do. It did not feel like any great risks were being taken or fresh interpretations on the work put forward. This was a by-the-numbers rendition that left me questioning its purpose.

In a previous interview with The Ubyssey, Director Gerald Vanderwoude said that he had waited 15 years for the “right place, right time, [and] right actors” to put on this play, but any indication of what made him feel like this was indeed the right time is a mystery.

Devoid of novelty and sporting little more than one strong performance, Happy Days is disappointing and forgettable.

Whatever the academic merits that this play might have, this isn’t worth your time from the student perspective, unless you already love Beckett. Tickets cost $10, and while that isn’t very expensive, you’d be better off saving your money for a different play. If you want to see a UBC theatre production this year, skip this one and see She Kills Monsters on January 18 instead.