Margarita Mladenova about ‘Happy Days’ – a performance on the vital impulse to live

The ‘Sfumato’ Theater Laboratory participates in the festival selection with the production ‘Happy Days’ by Samuel Beckett. Desislava Vasileva talks with director Margarita Mladenova.

‘Happy Days’ is a powerful provocation to the human situation in the modern world. How did you develop the ascetic style of the production and what do you want to convey to the audience?

The ascetic style is not specifically developed for this performance. In recent years, I’ve been looking at everything without which a theatre piece can exist and what it can’t do without. In this regard, Beckett is a maximally demanding author. He himself is terribly ascetic in outlook, in philosophy. For me, the strong impulse to start ‘Happy Days’ is the analogy, the connection with what is happening to humans in our time. Because Beckett seems to sense, predict, warn the absurd, paradoxical existence of the human being. In a world that takes much from us and gives us almost nothing, and in which man nevertheless has a strong vital impulse to expect, to hope, to discover, to endure. With all the consciousness of what was taken from him/her. So asceticism is more of a philosophy than a style.

What specific challenges did you face in building Winnie’s character and how did you partner with actress Svetlana Yancheva?

We have been working with Svetlana Yancheva since her student years. We have done very powerful things together. I think that the desire to continue working together will not leave us as long as we live. I wouldn’t have started ‘Happy Days’ if it wasn’t for Svetlana Yancheva. I wouldn’t do it with any other actress. I wouldn’t start it with another actress. The difficulties, the specific challenges, come from the fact that Winnie is, as one close to Beckett says, ‘the female Hamlet.’ Winnie is to the actress what Hamlet is to the actor. But only the one who works this, who is connected to the making, the creation of a theatrical work, of a performance, knows what 30 pages of continuous monologue in a flow means. This is a heart attack task, a heart attack provocation for any actor. I know of no other such Beckett’s play. All the monologues in his other plays, they are always interrupted, they form something like dialogues. I don’t know anywhere else that there is such an avalanche of words, such an extraordinary intense and on the edge of the possible verbal hour, as Winnie’s monologue in ‘Happy Days’. It was a very difficult task and Svetlana and I walked through the process together, with responsibility and with our guard absolutely down. We went through a very, very, very long effort to construct within this multi-layered, multi-component monologue a seemingly unedited flow of speech. Beckett borrows this technique from the way thought works. But we tried to build inside all this matter, this flowing verbal matter, a construction, an associative network, some anchor points to move the actress through the text, so that they don’t just stand as words and images that they create, then they disintegrate. That was the difficulty. I think we found the math in the seemingly verbal chaos of Winnie’s speech in ‘Happy Days’. That helped a lot.

Photo: Yana Lozeva

The music in the performance is by Hristo Namliev, and the scenographer is Nikola Toromanov. How did you achieve this unusual synchronicity between the musical score and the visual side of the production?

We are a team that is not working together for the first time. And in the working process for ‘Happy Days’ we were together at literally all the rehearsals. Not to mention that Nikola Toromanov helped with the text and improvised parts for the set. That is, it wasn’t just that each of them did their work and I brought the pieces together. We were breathing together in the creation of this performance. All of Hristo Namliev’s music comes from Winnie’s feeling that someone is watching her. She feels like she’s being watched. These sounds, coming from unclear sources, are either confirmations that she heard someone recording something, or a challenge to what she was thinking. They change the course of her thinking. Thus, the musical score becomes an actor. Through the music, Winnie’s feeling that she is not alone, that she is being watched, is revealed.

Until we arrive at this solution of the visual part with Nikola Toromanov we had many meetings. We kept going in the same direction, in the same design, the same intuition of who Beckett was and how he looked at man. Finally, we stopped at the magnificent image of the man inscribed in some spheres, which may be heavenly, may also be the circles of Dante’s ‘Inferno’. It’s hard to tell because the performance is vertical. It moves upward, like Sisyphus, in Winnie’s trust, in her hope, in her intellectual insights, until it tumbles downward in her helplessness to continue to strengthen herself. For there is nothing outside to strengthen herself in. She can only strengthen herself in her own contents. And in that strong vital impulse that drives her living.

There is a phrase by Beckett written in a letter to a friend of his who was very ill and in misery. Beckett says, ‘I continue to be amazed at what this power is that helps us live with our wounds.’ I have not come across a more accurate expression of what drives man and what an amazing being man is because we are punished to live and not die. For Beckett, death is hope, rest. Man is condemned to live. However, man doesn’t complain, doesn’t grumble, doesn’t whine, doesn’t curse, doesn’t get angry. Humans do not begin to hate, but continue to believe, love and discover. This is the great paradox of living, and in this sense the play is extremely valuable for today’s man who ‘suffers from a lack of meaning.’ No one can give it to you, you have to find it yourself. And not once, but every morning again and again.

Photo: Yana Lozeva

What motivates you to continue exploring human existence through theatre?

I think that’s what theater is for. Its real purpose is to discover the other in man. To discover that in us what we have not been able to do, or that has begun to die within us. Theater can give us again a sense of wholeness in a world that destroys us. That is its purpose in my opinion.


Absurdism is not particularly popular in the repertoires of theater companies in Bulgaria. What are your observations about the perception of the theater of the absurd among the Bulgarian audiences?

The twenty performances of ‘Happy Days’ so far have mostly been at festivals. We were in Cluj, Romania. There we were watched by people from various countries and theater people. We have always been greeted with great interest, with the silence in the hall after a performance, with the excitement at the end, the length of the applause, the excited people who then wait and come to the dressing room. Some of them are even moved to tears by a seemingly unsentimental author like Beckett. All this deep excitement about the truth of man rising up tells me that Beckett is forthcoming. Beckett is an author we have yet to reach. The viewers, and we too.

Watch ‘Happy Days’ as a part of the Bulgarian Selection and Showcase programme on 5th June at 18:00 and at 20:30, Drama Theatre – Varna, Main Stage, with English subtitles.

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