Belfast actor Simon Wolfe told David Hennessy how good it is to get back to performing live after a year of lockdown and restrictions, why Beckett is ‘the master’ and it was so liberating to get away from the ‘hard’ Belfast of the late 80s when he came to London to study acting.
“If I wasn’t skint, I would have paid them,” Belfast actor Simon Wolfe says of the joy of being back in the theatre.
After theatres being shut down for over a year, Simon can now be seen with Lisa Dwan in the 60th anniversary production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days at Riverside Studios.
Revered as one of Ireland’s greatest ever playwrights, Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Plays such as Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Waiting for Godot as well as Happy Days are considered to be some of the finest ever written.
And the run takes place at the same Riverside Studios where the playwright rehearsed Endgame in 1980 and Waiting for Godot in 1984.
Simon told The Irish World: “He’s one of the masters really because I think you can go and watch a Beckett play and take away your own story.
“You’re confronted with your own story of it.
“You’re not confronted with ‘Oh, this is this person’s life. And this is the way you have to relate to it’.
“I think that’s why he never described what his plays are about.
“People would say, ‘Oh, what’s your play about?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know’.
“I think whoever you are, when you go and see it there, you will recognize yourself or somebody you know, or situations you’ve been in. Everything is there really.
“I did a tour of Waiting for Godot in Italy. We toured all around Northern Italy for four months, and they love Godot over there. It really resonates for them. Especially the part of Lucky. I played Lucky who has the massive and really incoherent speech in the middle.
“It made sense to me. You have to make sense of it yourself. It has all those different themes in it.
“And also, it’s hilarious. It’s really bleak, dark, Irish humour.”
Almost like a lockdown drama, Happy Days finds husband and wife Willie and Winnie with only each other for company.
Winnie takes comfort in the monotony of her existence, passing the time by completing routine tasks while always saying, ‘This is a happy day’.
The first act finds her buried to her waist while for the second act, Winnie is buried to her neck and still talking about ‘happier days’.
Lisa Dwan has been hailed by the New York Times as “the nonpareil interpreter of Samuel Beckett”,
and will play Winnie while Simon plays her taciturn husband, Willie.
Simon believes the play takes on another resonance now for having lived through the pandemicas it looks at human strength and survival amidst the most surreal of circumstances.
“It has real resonance.
“Reading it is one thing but to hear the play in situ is really resonant now. It was resonant before because it has all those great themes of life and death and memory.
“You’re not sure whether Winnie is someone who is approaching death or she’s just thinking about it or her husband is dying. You don’t really know.
“But it’s that memory. And I think it’s even more resonant now with us not being together as a community in any sense, even being able to see our family.
“And also with the deaths of people in the community, people’s relatives dying, being stuck in care homes….
“There’s all those things. There’s everything in there really with Beckett.
“Come and see it. Come back to the theatre. It’s about being together. It’s about listening to those stories live. It’s about that live experience. Just to sit in a room of strangers again listening to somebody else’s story and not watching them on the screen.
“What we lose by not being in the room with people is so huge. But to come out and see a master communicator like Beckett- even though he won’t tell you what he’s talking about- is really important.”
Simon is joined by Lisa Dwan who is known for her critically acclaimed one-woman performances of Beckett’s plays, including The Beckett Trilogy & No’s Knife, both of which have sold out across the globe.
Lisa also writes, presents, and lectures regularly on Beckett for various publications including BBC Radio and Television.
Her book A Body of Beckett will be published by Virago Books this year.
What is it like to share the stage with such an expert on the subject? “It’s a bit scary,” Simon laughs.
“It’s been a bit scary being in a room with experts.
“But she’s lovely. And it is a real education. People can talk about it but to see somebody who understands it so well and then performs it so amazingly, it’s amazing.
“I think people are going to really have their socks blown off by our performance. It’s quite something. And we’re not even there yet. We’re in the last week of rehearsals. It’s not even at full tilt yet. It’s a really emotional watch, and hilarious.”
Simon’s previous theatre credits include War Horse at the National Theatre, a full UK tour of Punk Rock, Great Expectations at Bristol Old Vic, As the Beast Sleeps at the Tricycle Theatre and Force of Change at the Royal Court Theatre.
His television work includes We Hunt Together, Carnival Row, Coming Up, and The Catherine Tate Show.
It has been a hard year for Simon like many others who work in live performance who have had to watch the whole industry grind to a halt.
“I haven’t been able to go into the West End for a year. It’s just too depressing. The West End is the theatres. It’s the bars and the restaurants but they are there because of the theatre landscape. Just to know it’s shut not just here but all over the world is really heart wrenching really.
“You watch a play on the internet or even watching reruns of Glastonbury felt really.. I got really emotional about it, seeing an audience there. And everyone together. And that celebration of life, you know. It was quite an emotional thing to watch. Yeah, it’s been devastating really.
“Those memories seem like they’ll never come back.
“It’s not just people in theatre. People like sports people are thinking, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not the same if there’s no fans there to watch’. It’s almost pointless.
“I think that’s why a lot of people got very depressed during the whole thing: Because we are social animals. We need other people. We need to be together. We need to sing and laugh and dance and be together. Otherwise it all feels a bit futile, doesn’t it?
“And not everybody was covered by the self-employment scheme or furlough.
“We’re lucky in that we’ve been able to put this show on but a lot of those bigger shows, they will not be able to open at all until maybe October/ November, because they need a full house. They need like 80%, 90% capacity just to break even.
“All those people’s jobs are at risk but it’s not just them. It’s the people who work backstage, the people in the offices. We’re not the only ones. It has been quite heart breaking.”
Will it be strange to see everyone wearing masks? “It will be a bit odd. But no, I think it’s gonna be really emotional. And hopefully the beginning of a return to normal.”
Simon has lived in London since he came here to study acting in his twenties.
“I grew up in Belfast and left in the late 80s to come to London to be an actor and I’ve been here ever since.
“I always felt when I was growing up that my life was happening somewhere else. Other teenagers think that, ‘I should be somewhere, I should be doing something’. But it was a hard place in those days, Belfast. It was a hard place to live.
“Obviously, with the Troubles and everything, it was really grim.
“I didn’t really get into theatre until I was about 20 and I started doing plays then. And in terms of theatre in Belfast in those days, there wasn’t anything so if you wanted to do theatre, you had to leave. You had to go to London or Manchester or Dublin.
“And if you’re like me, if you didn’t come from any sort of background of acting or theatre, you really had to leave.”
Was it a relief to get away from the ‘hard’ Belfast of those days? “Yeah, it was. It was really liberating.
“Belfast is a small town, really. It is a city but it has that small town mentality. For a young person, you do feel sort of restrained in a way.
“So coming to London where nobody really gave a shit about who you were, what you did or where you went- Everything was open.
“And I remember the first summer, I was living in Stoke Newington. I came out of a shop and there was two girls there and one of them didn’t have any top on. She just had DMs, jeans and a pair of braces covering her nipples.
“And I just thought, ‘This is a place for me, man’.
“And nobody gave her a second glance. I don’t know if they were afraid but it was just like, ‘Do what you want, be who you want’.
“That’s the great thing about London. There was there was no, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t wear that’.
“I felt really free in London.
“I’ve been here ever since. I just really felt at home in London.”
Happy Days runs at Riverside Studios until 25 July.