A third of the way into rehearsals, Maxine Peake (Winnie), David Crellin (Willie), Sarah Frankcom (Director) and Atri Banerjee (Assistant Director) discussed their work so far on the Royal Exchange’s production of HAPPY DAYS.

AB: What’s the background to this production?

SF: We always like to do something that’s a bit of a challenge, and Maxine and I have wanted to do something funny for quite a long time now. We both really fell in love with Winnie, and that sense of how the play creates an experience of a very particular woman over the course of an evening in the theatre. Also, it’s obviously a play that’s got some really big physical challenges about doing it in-the-round, and I think we always like to not quite know how to do something when we start.

AB: What is it about the play that you hope will speak to a Manchester audience now?

SF: Not to be too bleak about things but we’re living through very uncertain times. There’s a sense that the world is chaotic, and increasingly we don’t feel like we have much agency over the things that happen in our lives. I think it’s the place of theatre to create experiences and opportunities for people to explore a different relationship to the more ordinary aspects of being a human being. HAPPY DAYS puts on stage a couple under difficult circumstances in a world that’s given them a lot of challenges to endure on a daily basis, and yet it celebrates their ability to survive in the most trying of times. Because of that, I think it’s really important to make it for now. It’s made us think a lot about what people put up with, and live with, every single day, whether that’s illness, or conflict, or poverty. There are a lot of people who manage to find a happy day through these obstacles, and the play tries to celebrate that.

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AB: Beckett has an intimidating reputation as a playwright, but I think we’ve found ways to connect with his work in a very human way. Would you agree with that?

MP: Yes. You’ve got to make the characters human. The research we’ve been doing was interesting in that we discovered that Beckett wanted the performances to be stripped back of any acting. But what does that mean? Does it become very one-note, cold, and alien? We’ve found that what actually happens is that you get a very real sense of two people in a trying situation. That’s the beauty of it. The challenge is finding those people. What really helps is that the play has lots of humour in it, it’s very funny, and you can see his love of Charlie Chaplin and Vaudeville humour influencing his writing. It’s amazing how is still stands up today, though it’s very intimidating to perform as an actor. I don’t think there’s many playwrights who have a strict set of rules on how their pieces should be performed.

David Crellin in rehearsals for Happy Days

DC: It’s interesting being in a play where most of your actions and thoughts are initiated by another character. Listening has never been so important. As with Shakespeare and Ayckbourn, you really need to simply try and do what the writer’s written. Beckett is a lot smarter than me! But there’s something freeing in that, you follow the text almost as if it were a piece of music, and you can trust it. I’ve also been observing people I know and I’ve been trying to understand how they’ve become embedded in their difficult lives, and how they’ve found a way to exist in them.

AB: Looking at the various drafts of this play, Beckett originally made Winnie and particularly Willie much more Vaudevillian, but then gradually stripped that away to create something much more essential.

MP: Sarah pointed out early on in rehearsals, if you perform Winnie too comedically or too much of a caricature then you’re not going to hold an audience’s attention. People have to really feel like they’re watching someone’s daily life in performance; they’ve got to be brought in to witness something, as well as engaging with it.

Maxine Peake in rehearsals for Happy Days

SF: They’ve got to see themselves in it too, I think, or see their life in it in some way.

DC: I described the basic plot to my oldest friend who’s not a regular theatre-goer. I said the play’s metaphoric, there’s a woman who—although buried up to the waist in the middle of a barren wilderness—still tries hard to look good and be positive, set against her recalcitrant husband, who spends his time with trite newspaper articles, soft porn, and only occasionally acknowledges her existence. To which his response was: ‘Sounds like my marriage’. He recognised the distance that has come between them, even though they’re still together as a couple.

MP: But there’s a joy in that too. There’s moments of happiness in the ordinariness, it’s not just about the doom and gloom of a long-term relationship. This play is about the positives that come out of being with somebody that long, and scrutinises that partnership and how it functions.

SF: It celebrates the little details of a very long life lived by two people who are symbiotic; they’re their own eco-system. It also looks at how people survive that and how they are changed very slowly over time. I also think it’s a play about two people getting old together, and some of that’s difficult and some of it’s quite life-affirming, actually. Seeing yourself age through the lens of how someone else ages.

AB: We’re in week two of rehearsals. How’s the process been so far?

MP: We created the evolution of Winnie and Willie’s relationship through dance and movement. It’s improvisation, but it’s not literal - we learnt different dances for different moments in their relationship and used them as a shorthand for getting into character and understanding the dynamics between them. Thinking how you dance with somebody, and how that has an effect on you physically. It means you can compress a lot of time, and a lot of development of a relationship, into a relatively brief exercise, and that’s a wonderful tool. We did an exercise this morning when we worked out how the couple would have had dinner throughout their twenty-year marriage and looked at the repetition in that daily routine and how it can symbolise a relationship becoming stale and more tired as people get older. For a play that is so static, Sarah and Vicki Manderson (Movement Director) have utilised a lot of movement in our rehearsals; not just for our physical understanding but for our mental journey as well.

Sarah Frankcom rehearsing Happy Days

SF: I’ve not been so surprised by a play as a director as I have been with this. I thought I really knew what it was about, and I thought it was going to be very serious. I’ve been staggered by how funny it is, but also about how much of it is about hope, light, love, connection, and about trying. One of the things we found out in the first week of rehearsals is that it was written when Beckett was first married, and at a time when he was thinking very deeply about his relationship with his wife, Suzanne. The play feels like it’s written by someone who’s letting his hair down and pushing what you can do in theatre. He’s always very inventive as a writer but it feels like there’s an exuberance in it that isn’t in his other work. I’ve not looked forward to coming into rehearsals as much as this, it’s such good fun and very rich.

DC: It’s very much out of its time too, in that he wrote it when everyone else was being realistic and naturalistic.

MP: It’s amazing how much you can get into a play when you write something slightly more abstract. It feels like it has much bigger themes than any kitchen sink play that was written at the same time.

AB: We spoke the other day about it going against kitchen sink dramas, but then still putting a kitchen sink in it (in Winnie’s bag).

MP: And it was just Angry Young Men then.

SF: Yes, and this gives a voice to a middle-aged woman...

DC: A happy middle-aged woman as opposed to an angry young man.

AB: Can you reveal anything about how it’s going to exist in the Royal Exchange?

SF: That’s part of the invitation to an audience. Every play we do in our unique space has to be completely re-imagined, and HAPPY DAYS has to be fundamentally re-imagined. In a way, the solutions have been pure Beckett. We’ve created an environment which reflects a world that feels a little out of control and feels like it’s used up its resources and that there is a cost to it.

AB: How would you describe the play in just a few words to someone who doesn’t know anything about the play or Beckett?

DC: Last night on the train I said, ‘If the League of Gentlemen were doing a one-woman about marriage, they might come up with something like this.’

MP: It’s a surrealist, naturalistic, existential look at relationships.

SF: I’d say it’s a love story.

Happy Days runs at the Royal Exchange 25 May - 23 June

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