Landmark Productions will broadcast Happy Days from the Olympia Theatre, Dublin on January 30-31, directed by Caitríona McLaughlin with Siobhán McSweeney as Winnie and Marty Rea as Willie. Here is an edited version of Stiene Thillman’s interview with Rea about the role and his engagement with Beckett. The full version and a performance review will appear in the Spring issue of The Beckett Circle
Stiene Thillmann [ST]: Both the setting and themes of Happy Days are particularly striking in the context of the pandemic. What do you think is the value of this production at this specific time?
Marty Rea [MR]: I think a lot of Beckett’s work offers something quite special. On the one hand, it presents a stark and unsettling, but brutally truthful look at the human state at its fundamental level, at any given time. On the other hand, he does it in such a way that you find yourself laughing and asking yourself “what are we all so worried about?” We’re fighting the waves and trying to beat the sea back, and there’s something so hilariously futile about that. Beckett is able to draw that feeling out of his subject matter and use it as a veneer over the play itself, so that we enjoy ourselves while watching it, but are simultaneously reminded of what the human state actually is. And it ends up giving you some strength and reassurance as well: you come back out of the theatre afterwards and think to yourself, “alright, I know what it’s all about and I know how hard it is, but you know what? It can be great fun at the same time.”
ST: This isn’t your first Beckett rodeo: you played Vladimir in the Druid Theatre Company’s production of Waiting for Godot in 2017-2018, which travelled far and wide, receiving much critical acclaim. Was this your first proper introduction to Beckett?
MR: I had certainly encountered him, but I had never been involved in a professional production before Godot. To be honest with you, I’m glad that I had waited until I was at a certain level in my career and my age. Even in saying that, when the four of us first had the idea, we worried that we were too young – we were in our late thirties then. And then there was also the fact that Beckett just is one of those huge mountains to climb to any actor. But we’d been working quite strongly as an ensemble with Druid, we thought he had a strength of performance and an understanding between us that it was time to tackle it […] There are some writers you really have to trust and give yourself over to completely as an actor because they’re directing you in the writing. I think that the modern style of acting, which has a lot to do with subtext and what could be happening behind the lines, has forgotten that. This is also how many writers are working nowadays, especially for drama. But there are certain writers who say that the script itself and the delivery of it on stage is as much a part of this experience as anything else. You have to approach it as a musical score, and follow it to every full stop, or every pause, long pause and maximum pause. It’s a cruel way to rehearse when you start, it feels very technical and empty. I think a lot of actors feel like they’re not doing any acting, so they start to panic and think that the writer is no good. But I’ve found that all my favourites, as it turns out, are the writers that ask you to do that. If you persevere and you heed them, you start to find their patterns and feel their rhythms. You start to be able to lift up a corner and see underneath; you can pre-empt them and get a feeling for them, and after a while, it doesn’t feel so robotic or didactic. You feel like you’re getting into the skin of this writing. You read people like Beckett, Pinter, Tom Murphy, and of course Shakespeare, who give you a kind of linguistic choreography, and you find that other writers, like Eliot, suddenly start to make an awful lot of sense.
ST: After having experienced such a breadth of dialogue, how did you fare playing someone as exceedingly concise as Willie?
MR: It was interesting, because the world is so different now. In the past year, it’s all felt so unsteady and so shaky, and we haven’t been able to work the way we normally would be. When the possibility came up to work on Beckett for a month at the start of 2021, I grabbed it. Siobhán is having to do so much work; I just have to be ready when she needs me and be as perfect as possible, so that I don’t add any more work for her. It does also mean I have a lot of spare time and I get to do so much reading. As much as I complain about the academia hijacking writers, if I had my way, I’d be an academic – I’m just not smart enough. January is a difficult month to get through anyway, but I get to spend it investigating and listening to Beckett. It’s very cool getting to watch people who hadn’t done Beckett before have the same discussions we had when doing Godot, because you can then say, “don’t worry, you’re on the right path.” For this play, at least!
ST: Oh yes, there’s a whole bottomless pit of other work to explore and agonise over! Some more about Happy Days, if I may. Stagings of Happy Days have recently reinterpreted the mound in different ways: Katie Mitchell did a kitchen filled with water in 2015 and Blandine Savetier 2012 production included a tar-like mound featuring heavy-duty bin bags. But then Beckett’s stage directions say it’s the “maximum of simplicity and symmetry”. I was wondering what the mound looks like in this production: more experimental or more traditional?
MR: It looks like a big triangle of plywood at the minute, because that’s what we have to rehearse on. […] Most of the design will only be done once we’re on it. I wouldn’t want to give too much away about what the design looks like, in part because it may change quite a bit!
ST: Did the creative team take into consideration the fact that this production is a streamed event without a live in-house audience?
MR: We’ve all discussed it, but I don’t think it’s going to really register until we get the cameras in and start to feel what it’s like playing in front of an empty house. It wasn’t written for the screen or with cameras in mind; it’s very aware that it’s a play, as all of Beckett’s plays are. They know that they’re in a theatre. We’re all aware of it, the empty house, but it hasn’t really hit home yet – I think it might still be a bit of a shock. The rhythm of his writing includes the pulse of a live audience and their responses, and a live performer, in turn, feeds off that. I think that so much of his writing is rooted in a vaudevillian tradition, which is so that, it’s such a live experience.
ST: Finally, what’s been your main takeaway working with Beckett in the middle of a pandemic?
MR: With Beckett, you can’t help but touch on themes like death, and the darker sides of life and the human experience. And at the moment, those things seem so stark in the real world: there’s so much sickness and death going around. It’s on the forefront of my mind quite a lot and it can set in on me, so I get a bit down. And yet, working with one of the finest wordsmiths and shapers of language I’ve ever encountered, I get so much fulfilment out of it.
ST: There’s definitely worse people to be spending time with in a pandemic than Beckett.
Stiene Thillmann is an independent scholar with a master’s degree in Modern Literature from Goldsmiths College; she intends to pursue a PhD in Beckett studies soon. Her research interests include sound perception and the (disabled) audience, as well as queer theory and gender studies in Beckett’s work.
Production ticketing and information here.