Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester ★★★✩✩
MAXINE PEAKE is buried in a mound of earth for the entirety of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, her character Winnie — simultaneously terrifying and terrified — not in the least bit interested in escape.
It’s the discombobulating brilliance of Beckett’s 1961 play — as much abstract art as a drama — that we never find out why she is entombed in this grassy knoll. ‘Was I ever loveable?,’ she asks to absolutely no response from Willie, her virtually mute husband. It may be a question the audience will grapple with by the end, too.
Peake — like a combination of a 1950s society girl and crazed drama queen — channels some of the delicate yet ferocious mania she used to memorable effect in her Hamlet four years ago. As shards of a life and marriage flash in and out of focus, Peake has a rare ability to startle and amuse, sometimes in the same sentence.
Lines and thoughts arrive, seemingly laden with meaning, and then disappear into the oily water that surrounds the mound along with washed-up plastic detritus.
There is the merest hint of an environmental subtext. But Happy Days invites all kinds of fleeting ‘what does this all mean’ interpretations, because there is deliberately no clear narrative.
Director Sarah Frankcom revels in the effect of so many Beckettian existential questions but, by the end, there is a greater power in the sheer technical ability Peake displays: for a whole hour we have been watching nothing more than her head buried in a rotating mound — and yet it is utterly compelling. Loveable though? Perhaps not.