In its exploration of genre, Third Person Theatre Company has entered into the realms of what has come to be known as Theatre of the Post-Apocalypse. Because of the ephemeral nature of such improvised plays, such a genre is difficult to define or describe.
Seeing Natalie Abrahami‘s production of Beckett’s Happy Days at the Young Vic, with Juliette Stevenson and David Beames, makes us aware that pioneers of the theatre have explored this landscape before. And this production bears many of the hallmarks of the theatre to which Third Person aspires.
We first meet Winnie and Willie going through the routines of what has become their every day life. In many respects, it is extraordinary, but it is presented as if it is ordinary. They give us the impression that life has been like this for some time. And they are used to it. They have developed ways of coping, complaining, interacting and enjoying. This routine is consciously ritualised in Winnie’s daily itinerary, e.g. She wakes with the alarm; she brushes her teeth; she combs her hair; she lays out all of her things in front of her; Willie reads excerpts from the paper. And while this life might be remarkable to the audience (because she is buried up to the waist in sand), it is not remarkable to the characters – they are used to it. They do this every day.
Many improvised plays start with a problem, but like Christopher Vogler writes in ‘The Writer’s Journey’, “If you are going to show a fish out of his customary element, you first have to show him in that ordinary world to create a vivid contrast with the strange new world he is about to enter.” When Happy Days begins, the audience might be unfamiliar with this world, but Winnie is not. It is her environment – no doubt things will change – but we begin by seeing what she does every day.
In many of their play structures, rather than beginning with a problem, Third Person begins by presenting the world that is (accepted by the characters as being) ordinary. Once the audience is familiar with it, then it can be changed.
In Happy Days there is very little in the way of narrative plot. The emphasis is mainly on character. Winnie’s desires are multiple: she wants to have a happy life (hence the play’s title); she wants to appreciate life’s ‘little mercies’; she wants to be lost in trifles (and this causes her mind to flit from one thing to another); she wants to die in order to be secure (this explains why she is trapped beneath an ever-increasing mound of sand). Willie’s neurosis is that he wants an easy life and he wants to be told off at the same time.
Winnie’s fate in this mound of sand is of course a metaphor for the human condition. Life is a landslide that eventually buries us. The play, rather than trying to tell us the story of how she got here and how she might struggle to free herself, merely examines what it is to be human under such conditions. In its recent Visions of Hell trilogy, Third Person sought to free itself from narrative, and merely to explore what it is to be human. There is, however, still an obligation to the audience to be coherent and to reincorporate ideas.
Relationships are paramount. Winnie’s relationship with Willie seems familiar enough, but it is her relationship with herself that most interests us: her struggle to remain buoyant; her struggle to stick to her routine; her struggle to engage with Willie; her struggle to cling on to her memories and the vestiges of humanity, like kindness and patience.
Creating relationships with status and dynamics are key elements in any improvised play. No wonder then, that Third Person places such emphasis on Meisner in its training.
The play begins with life’s routine, but things do not stay the same, e.g. The parasol catches fire; Winnie’s eyesight deteriorates; her toothpaste runs out. These diversions test her ability to adapt; they are obstacles to her desires and cause her both loss, suffering and renewed attempts at coping.
Many conventional structures see resolution as the only available direction. Watching Happy Days, however, is a rich experience because there is no resolution – there is change, chaos, shift and Winnie’s prognosis is both bleak and life affirming – but there is no resolution. We leave the theatre still partially engrossed in the stuff of the play.
This is a fine line for any improvisation company to tread, because there is a burning desire amongst actors to explain everything – so that they can leave the theatre with a sense of completion. This must be resisted for the benefit of the audience. Coherence is essential, but solutions to life are not.
The setting of Happy Days is non-naturalistic. This is not a kitchen sink drama and the esoteric rules of this world are accepted e.g. both characters are accustomed to the ringing of the bell and the mounting gravel. Winnie does, at one point, refer to some visitors in the past, who came by one day and questioned why Willie didn’t just dig her out! But these people represent the outside world – the audience even. Most experienced improvisers will know that it is a mistake to ‘dig’ other characters out of trouble – however much the audience might will it. So Winnie is left to her own devices. The characters accept the world they inhabit.
Previous experience helps to colour the past, e.g. Winnie refers to a market, a lake, flute glasses, final guests at a party – as if they were a dream. She enjoys these memories. This gives the landscape of the play a history, but there is still no need to justify anything. The references are not contemporary – and this helps to broaden the appeal of the play.
When Third Person remove their characters from contemporary settings, the actors are forced not only to describe or ‘colour’ the new environment, but also, bereft of the usual paraphernalia of everyday life, like the drawing room, or the office, we see the characters stripped of their contemporary frames of reference, and the spotlight is now on their humanity.
Life is an increasing mound of sand that will eventually bury us; everything else is simply an illusion in which we have allowed ourselves to become lost.
Happy Days is currently showing at The Young Vic.