Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Shaw inspires in a terrible world

Happy Days, Abbey Theatre

Samuel Beckett told himself, in a manuscript note for 'Happy Days', to make the play 'more vague'.

To this end, he cut out references to nuclear war. They might have explained its desolate landscape in the centre of which, up to her waist, sits Winnie.

The dusty rocks spread, brilliantly lit, across the Abbey stage. The scene is shot through with the loud jangle of the alarm bell that regulates the empty day and brings on the hideous night.

In the circumstances, claiming this play is about happiness, marriage and love, seems to stretch a point, yet Fiona Shaw, in a magical and mercurial performance, does just that. Her life, in the midst of desolation, is made bearable by a few small possessions and one big one.

The small emblems of her life -- a toothbrush and toothpaste, mirror, lipstick, a Browning revolver -- are varying comforting encouragements, stimulating her to be pretty. If all goes wrong there is the gun.

Her big possession is husband Willie. He gives purpose to everything she does and says. He rarely speaks to her, is rarely seen -- occasionally rising up from behind the rocks to read to her passages out of newspapers -- only to subside again.

Within this restricted view of life Winnie is electrifyingly joyful and positive, her days made happy by a man who never touches her, looks at her and has questionable physical habits of nose blowing, evidence of which comes to us from behind the rocks.

Winnie ages; in Act Two she sinks up to her neck, her teeth go, yet she keeps on smiling, never giving up on her expectation of 'another happy day'.

This joy of the free spirit, inspired by that which we call love in this terrible world, also inspires an evening of exceptional acting.

Fiona Shaw's arms, her neck, her breasts, above all her face, with its myriad expressions, have a magnetic appeal.

And when Willie, 'dressed to kill' in Beckett's stage direction, reaches for the Browning pistol, the only thing possible is for the lights to cut and for darkness to descend.