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The illusion of happiness and love with Antoinette Jelgersma and Erik Whien

"Another happy day. He listens to me ...Another very happy day, he speaks to me." Life reduced to its essence, with Winnie towering womanishly above the human molehill for her final episode.

Antoinette Jelgersma, in Happy Days under Erik Whien, puts on a more monty version of Winnie, one of the toughest stage roles, with a monologue sitting still under a heap of sand. Originally devised by Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett, this set has been transformed by Juul Dekker of Het Nationale Theater into a sloping yellow wickerwork, with Winnie's upper body protruding above it before the interval, only her head after the interval.

Within easy reach is a bag containing, apart from toiletries, a gun, which you initially see as an opportunity to escape, but gradually lose your attention. After all, Winnie gets through the harshness of life with mundanity and appreciation of small happiness.

Illusion and influencer

Her days are laid out by the bell, but she undergoes the dull ritual with cheerful, resilient and optimistic chatter. She fully realises the moments of happiness. Virtually nothing happens, except the firing of an umbrella. In the second act, the audacious attempts to make sense of the illusion of a meaning of life become progressively more difficult.

Man Willie does not respond to her cries, she just lauds memories a better times, until he emerges on all fours. And tries to crawl towards her, in vain. Winnie suggests singing together, always looking for comfort. Tragedy wins.

Come to that in times of ever-seeking fuss, excitement, greatest experiences; you have to make life a celebration. Flung back and forth between feelings and thoughts of futility, courage and small gratitude, the idea of the influencer briefly came to mind. Are we trapped for an hour and a half with a woman whose eyes we cannot take our eyes off with her life that is as empty as it is intriguing?

Maybe this is swearing in the cultural church of theatre, but I think Erik Whien can laugh at it. Wonderful quote from a HNT interview: 'Beckett is very much about emptiness. He makes space within an abstract and theatrical universe to think about certain themes. He tries to give form to the enigma of existence. But the meaning, I think, each makes for himself. In that respect, it is more a work of art than a text.'
'As a director, I take my own frameworks out of Happy Days. That it's about death and it's about love and it's about art. But then you will see that someone in the audience doesn't see all that and adds a fourth.'

True love?

So, as a spectator, you don't have to feel ashamed if, after a while, you think: "What on earth am I looking at? What is this immeasurably boring? Hadn't I better go home to The Succession binge-watching?"

Until the penny drops: the mirror Beckett holds up to you is implacable in the fragile balance between loneliness and love. "Get back in your hole," commands Winnie man Willie at the beginning of Happy Days, and for a moment you look forward to a fun evening of absurdism for which René van 't Hof, with his facial expressions, is the perfect actor. But his role remains limited: we hear him groaning, answering Winnie's cries for attention sometimes and reading out annonces from the newspaper, and he only becomes visible at the end.

Absurdism and futility are secondary to Winnie's serious expressions of concern and love. Beckett's portrait of life is as merciless as it is comforting. Jokes contribute to it, such as about the third living creature in Happy Days, an ant dragging still-fertile eggs. "Fucking ants," Willie suggests and they laugh uncontrollably. Not so much for the lame pun, but out of momentary pleasure of voice in each other's ears, of contact and concern.

Antoinette Jelgersma as Winnie at this fine HNT performance is as wonderful as it is attractive. About 50 years old, Beckett described her age in 1961, so you can now make that 15 or half a generation older with impunity. In the front half of the auditorium, Winnie's facial expressions are easy to follow. And the morning after the performance, her first sentence encourages you to make something of it: "What a divine day!"

Seen: Premiere Happy Days, The National Theatre, 15 April 2023, Theater aan het Spui. Tour until 13 May in the west, south and east of the country, with the last nights in The Hague. (For northerners here a complete film version) Photo: Sanne Peper

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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