Judith Lucy stars in Beckett masterwork Happy Days at MTC

We love living in one of the top arts cities of the world. At your fingertips are plays of great innovation and edginess whilst also serving up classics like Melbourne Theatre Company’s latest- Happy Days. An hour and a half without interval, get yourself schooled in mid-20th Century modernist writing in one easy sitting.

This classic drama pops up out of the sand with Melbourne comedienne Judith Lucy as the central character.

Buried up to her torso in a mound of earth, she gives a unforgettable rendition of one of Beckett’s sad human characters whose lives amount to nothing and are fretful in a landscape of horrific abandonment. This is the work of lifetime and she seizes the chance with both hands.

Putting everything into a faultless personification of Winnie, you do not see Lucy as a stand up comedian or tv celebrity; you see a serious student of drama stripped down beyond bare essentials, as the poor, spare creature she plays. 

A tragicomedy commentary on the futility of civilised life and the life of humans in a meaningless universe, Lucy, hair up and in her best day dress hat,  is supported by a handgun, an umbrella, some scrappy bushes, rocks and dirt and the elements. Her henpecked husband, Willie, absently present, is the recipient of her unending prattle as she meditates on the minutes of daily life, laconically portrayed by Hayden Spencer, half-dressed in a tuxedo. They seem like two beings shipwrecked at the end of the world. 

Irish born Samuel Beckett, one of the most famous modern European playwrights, author of Waiting For Godot, Malone Dies, Endgame and The Unnameable,  is one of the theatre greats. His plays don’t go for long and they aren’t about ‘entertainment’. In fact, his pieces can be gruelling for their lack of action, and dramatic despair. Characters can wait forever for signs of redemption, or any signs at all from a ‘god’ or any benign entity. The dialogue is spare, purist, enlightening. When all the lights go out, you can only gain illumination from the embers.

The fourth of his post-WWII Theatre of the Absurd classics, Happy Days(1961) is the pinnacle of his erudite simplicity. He says so much with minimal dialogue and brevity. As Winnie repeats: “[we had nothing to say…so we talked about everything]”.

Eugyeene Teh’s set combined with Paul Lim’s Lighting are spare and characterful- they take your breath away as evocative creation resembling our own rugged and barren Australian bush. Scenes of Winnie neck high in a mound of earth are theatrical classics and it’s great to see it in our hometown. 

This play is presciently current. A world at war, in fear of nuclear war, globally locked down for two years in an instant, with empires tipping to fall, we have to ask- are these really ‘happy days’? With its droning bell recurrently sounding, preventing sleep, and a person forced to live whilst buried alive, in a world with little hope or warmth, the play jarringly reminds us of whether we are trapped here, longing to escape, whether life is really worth much. It has moments of acute humour too, so, you’ll get a chuckle! Beckett always inserts pockets of light in his darkness. 

This is a perfect pre-dinner or pre-cocktail play to see. Take someone you want to impress – or inspire. It will stimulate your funny bone, stir your emotions, stun your senses, and promote ponderous insight- all the better to enjoy with friends in a warm bar in wintry Melbourne. MTC outdoes itself again and delivers a masterpiece, simply and with sophistication. 

– Sarah Wallace

is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, Melbourne.  A dance and English literature graduate of VCA, UOM and Deakin, she has a flair for bold, non-traditional performance platforms. An active contributor to The Melbourne Shakespeare Society, on the street, or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.

Happy Days shows 1 May – 10 June 2023 Monday – Saturday 6.307/7.30pm, 2pm Matinees Wed/Saturday at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner (1hr 35 mins, no interval). Book here. Accessible ticket available with special needs event dates. 

Images: Courtesy of MTC- Jo Duck, Pai Johnson. 

Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were the guests of Melbourne Theatre Company.