Judith Lucy takes on one of the most demanding roles in modern theatre
6th May 2023

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Happy Days ★★★½
Samuel Beckett, Melbourne Theatre Company, until June 10

For decades, Judith Lucy has cultivated the curled lip and sardonic wit of the jaded urbanite, perfecting the art of acidic feminist snark. Her comedy is, above all, knowing. Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is a very different creature. There’s a lot to unknow to fully realise one of the most demanding parts in modern drama.

Winnie, played by Judith Lucy, is one of the most demanding roles in modern drama. Credit: Pia Johnson

Winnie is in deep shit. Sand, actually – first up to her waist, then her neck – on a hellishly hot day in a vast desert landscape, after some unnamed apocalypse. (To a contemporary audience, climate change presents itself as the inescapable suggestion.)

She has only her faceless husband Willie (Hayden Spencer) for company, and he mostly ignores her.

Such a hopeless situation would make most of us want to curl up and die – or at least bitterly complain. Not Winnie. She ignores the gun within arm’s reach and gets on with her day. Puts on lippy. Brushes her teeth. Files her nails. She prattles. Gives herself little pep talks. Makes one-sided stabs at conversation with Willie. Half-remembers fragments of the Psalms and Shakespeare. Counts blessings and mercies.

Winnie’s radical optimism scales the cliff of the present by using that exotic grammatical tense, the future perfect. “This will have been,” she repeats after any memorable event in her existence, “a happy day”.

Judith Lucy’s performance is valiant, unconstrained by tradition and brings fresh insights to a play every theatre lover should want to see.Credit: Pia Johnson

Audiences may find themselves admiring Lucy’s tenacity, barracking for the underdog, and relishing some inspired passages of play in this unconventional interpretation. But accomplished histrionic technique? Command of the musicality of the language? A breath-catching, effortlessly inhabited Winnie whose unyielding, half-ingenuous act of self-assertion at once doggedly resists and helplessly succumbs to distinctly feminine forms of self-erasure? No, not really.

What we get isn’t exactly unimpressive.

Despite the plastered smile, Winnie is channelled in part through Lucy’s irrepressible comic persona. It’s a deliberately spiky performance with a much stronger passive-aggressive streak than the role usually receives, and can be funnier for that, especially in the low-key marital stand-off with Willie, and in meta-theatrical moments.

Lucy’s elastic and expressive face, aided by shadowy lighting design, also makes her neck-up performance a tormented battleground against evanescence – achieving if not outright poignancy, then at least a strangely familiar desolation, punctuated by sharp notes of suppressed anger.

Whether Winnie can rage against the dying of the light in quite this way without compromising the aching fragility behind her resilience, I’m not sure.

And maybe director Petra Kalive could have risked cracking this classic wide open to contemporary feminist challenge, by striking a consistent, and entirely self-conscious, anachronistic tone.

Given the scale of the task faced here, this is a valiant performance, unconstrained by tradition, that brings fresh insights to the work a play every theatre lover should want to see.

It’s obvious Judith Lucy has the talent and creative intelligence for a stage acting career, and if Joanna Murray-Smith wrote a play for her, I’d see it in a heartbeat.

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