Lisa Dwan takes on the role of Winnie in Happy Days at the Riverside Studios in London. She spoke to Mert Dilek about tackling the part as a younger (and pregnant) woman, and about working with director Trevor Nunn on another Beckett piece. [A longer version of this interview will appear in the Autumn issue of the Beckett Circle.]
Mert Dilek [MD]: What’s the story of how this production of Happy Days came into being? What occasioned the choice of the play and your collaboration with Trevor Nunn?
Lisa Dwan: [LD]: Well, my work with Beckett is part of a kind of trajectory. I was first cast in Not I very young. Then came Footfalls and Rockaby. At one point I said to Billie Whitelaw, ‘Oh God, I’d love you to direct me in Happy Days, but I’m far too young’. And she said, ‘I really don’t think you are. Beckett wanted somebody young and vivacious and buxom and trapped in their life’. I said this to Walter Asmus after we finished the Beckett trilogy, and he said, ‘I think you should wait’. So then I said to Edward Beckett: ‘Jesus Christ, what do I do next? Wait until I’m 50 or 60 to play Happy Days?’ He said: ‘Lisa, why don’t you take a look at some of the prose texts?’ That’s what spurred me to investigate Texts for Nothing and turn that into a one-woman production as a sort of holding place before Happy Days. And then I also did Ill Seen Ill Said.
Then there was a very weird circumstance involving General David Petraeus, who is a five-star-decorated general, and who led the surge to Baghdad, Iraq. Somehow he had watched Not I and sent me a message saying, ‘Save for the rush for Baghdad, Not I was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced’. Occasionally, our paths would cross in New York at various kinds of events. But I never thought anything about it until I got a message from him introducing me to Sir Trevor Nunn. What had happened is that Trevor and he were at a dinner together. They were sat next to one another, and he asked Trevor what he was most excited about doing next. Trevor mentioned Beckett, and he said, ‘Oh, Beckett, well, then you should meet Lisa Dwan’. Trevor hadn’t heard of Lisa Dwan. Next thing, we were connected.
So, Trevor and I had a coffee in London. He was, in particular, quite driven to do Krapp’s Last Tape, but was hoping to do a trilogy of Becketts. He suggested Happy Days, and I said: ‘To be honest with you, Happy Days is a full-length play. It’s not going to fit as a trilogy with anything. And also, I think it should wait until next year because it’s the 60th anniversary. But what would work very well with Krapp’s Last Tape, I think, is Eh Joe, particularly because of the story of the woman and the haunting.’ And then he had the idea to do The Old Tune. I had actually never seen that before. And so, they all worked quite well together. We had one day of rehearsal for Eh Joe, and then Trevor and I went into a studio and made the recording. It was all so quick. It was just great. Then we said that we’d like to do Happy Days together.
In between, he came to see my version of Antigone in Dublin that Colm Tóibín had written for me. When it came to filming that in Riverside Studios, I asked Trevor to direct it with me. Meanwhile, because of the pandemic, the dates kept shifting with Happy Days, but both of us were utterly committed to it. And I began the arduous task of learning it. I felt that I had reached that stage in my life where I was just a few years shy of what age Billie Whitelaw was as Winnie, and older, indeed, than Joan Plowright, whom Beckett had initially in mind for this role. But she had turned it down because she was pregnant.
MD: How did the process of preparation unfold then?
LD: So, I was learning the part, and on Christmas Day I discovered that I was pregnant. I first thought, ‘Oh no!’. And then I thought, ‘Well, actually, that’s perfect’. There’s no better role to be pregnant in. What are the risks? I get too hot? Well, I just had to make sure that they used more LED lights than Source Fours and kept me cool. And the biggest risk, of course, was the brain fog of learning such an arduous role. I have a very good memory. But I knew that it would be the most compromised it has ever been, because of the pregnancy, because of all the red cells needed elsewhere in the body. So, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just have to work harder’.
And that’s what I did. I basically ran the play every day and started learning it at home via Zoom, getting ready. When I went into rehearsals with Trevor, I knew every word. I was totally off. In a way, I had found my own way in. That’s not to say that Trevor didn’t have an extraordinary contribution, because he did. But I had arrived in rehearsal pretty much fully formed.
MD: How did his direction colour your take on the play afterwards?
LD: Trevor always had the idea that he wanted the second act to be very different. He wanted a huge gap in time. I think, in retrospect, he’s done a fantastic job. I really think it works. I have never seen that difference done so dramatically before. And the truth is that, when you look at Beckett’s notes and stage directions, that’s exactly what he wanted. He wanted the deathly white face.
But I was nervous about it. Because I had only ever seen the second act performed as if it were a day later, except she’s buried up to her neck. Maybe a little dishevelment but not something so gravely different. And I really began to trust Trevor. I’ve worked with lots of directors, but never with anyone this good. He’s phenomenal on text. He has an inherent musicality about him. He knows where to place the stresses, and he knows how to give an actor, particularly a smart actor, a very good note. He doesn’t give you too many notes. He doesn’t give you vague notes. He gives you extremely precise, useful tools that you can take up every night to climb that mountain.
Yes, I had all the text in my head. Yes, I had all the locations of those voices in my head. They were mine. But Trevor would almost stand, looking at the mountain with me, and going, ‘Well, if you put your foot here, and if you put the stress here, and if you reach for that, and if you do this…’. It’s almost like a coach showing you how to scale this enormous mountain. As a result, I’ve never felt so held in a production before. He’s formidably intelligent. But you need someone like that with that text. Especially with all the references in it. Because you will always find something [hidden]. Nothing’s just there for a quick plaster, to make it sound good. Everything has a purpose.
Happy Days runs at Riverside Studios, London, until 25th July 2021. You can book tickets here.
Mert Dilek is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, where he holds the Camilla Mash Studentship in English Literature at Trinity College. His doctoral research examines the representation of stage objects in twentieth-century drama, including Beckett’s work. His critical writing has appeared in Theatre Journal, and he contributes regularly to The Stage, Exeunt Magazine, and The Theatre Times. He also collaborates with theatre companies as a dramaturg and is currently affiliated with the National Theatre.