Some have called it the female Hamlet. Certainly, Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days serves up, in the part of Winnie, one of the most demanding roles in theatre. Buried up to her waist in an earth mound, the actress playing Winnie must speak what is in effect a 90-minute monologue. It’s a unique challenge-one that is being met superbly these days by Martha Burns, the star of Soulpepper’s strong Toronto production (to Aug. 16) directed by Vikki Anderson. An actress of great precision and vulnerability, Burns turns Winnie into a fussy middle-class matron who gradually reveals a heart of oak. Who knows why she’s immured in dirt and weeds? Winnie doesn’t say. Instead, she cheerfully constructs a life by rummaging in her capacious handbag, talking to herself, and trying to get a rise out of her laconic husband, Willie (Michael Simpson).
For Burns, the role has made unprecedented physical demands. It gets so hot, under the “blazing light” required by Beckett’s stage directions, that she has to keep her feet on an ice pack under the mound (which is actually made of canvas and wood). Even harder is enduring Winnie’s isolation. “The aloneness is sometimes overwhelming,” says Burns. “For a long time I didn’t feel I could stand it. But I’ve come to realize the loneliness is good-it’s Winnie.”
Happy Days shares the current Soulpepper slate with two other productions: Racine’s classic 1677 tragedy, Phèdre (to Aug. 16), and Harold Pinter’s bleak 1974 play, No Man’s Land, featuring a performance of astonishing subtlety from the magnificent William Hutt (to Aug. 23). But Burns gets the palm for jumping over the highest bar. Just memorizing Winnie’s confusing hodgepodge of lines-so many of them non sequiturs-was an ordeal. She says she paid her children to run over her speeches with her, as well as getting help from a neighbour and the show’s assistant director, Lara Azzopardi. Comments Burns’s husband, actor Paul Gross: “Yes, it took a village to get Martha’s lines into her.” JOHN BEMROSE
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