From his simple stone cottage on the shores of Lough Erne, sculptor Alan Milligan enjoys views of the broad lake, Tully Castle and Knockmore mountain. Over cups of Mithi Chai tea, we talk about the widespread acclaim for his Beckett Chess Set.
It was displayed at the official launch of the 2013 Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival and will be installed on the Diamond in Enniskillen so that chess enthusiasts can play on festival days from August 22 – 26.
According to Sean Doran, Happy Days founder and artistic director, the Beckett Chess Set is a herculean artistic achievement. 'It's a unique work of art. In my experience as an artistic director commissioning international artists, it is one of the most rewarding and satisfying commissions I have been involved with.'
'Yes, it was an overnight success that took 10, 20 years,' jokes Milligan, pictured below. 'It’s a massive break for me. For years I have been the one supporting everybody else’s work, but now I have been recognised for my own. I am honoured to be on the same bill as the stellar line up at this year’s festival.'
In truth, the Beckett Chess Set is the first large scale work by this soft spoken, unassuming artist. Born in Belfast, Milligan completed a foundation year in Newry under the tutelage of Jasper McKinney, followed by a three-year art course at Bath Spa University.
When he arrived in Enniskillen, Milligan worked as a cinema projectionist, a stage hand at the Ardhowen Theatre, a facilitator on the Art of Regeneration programme alongside environmental artist, Holger Lonze, and is currently a lecturer in art and design at Fermanagh’s South West College.
When Doran met Milligan in the summer of 2011, he clearly saw his potential. Milligan explains that their relationship is a bit like Pozzo and Lucky, or Hamm and Clov, beloved Beckett characters all. 'Sean gave the order, but he gave me a long rope,' jokes Milligan.
The rope was severely stretched when the chess set, which was due to appear at the inaugural Happy Festival in 2012, was reduced to a pile of charcoal after Milligan’s studio burned down. The painstaking work of making the 32 chess pieces began all over again.
For Milligan, chess is a visual, spatial game, which is all about shapes. Samuel Beckett, who had a lifelong passion for chess, studied the moves printed daily in Le Monde when living in Paris, enjoyed games with Marcel Duchamp, and wrote a one act play entitled Endgame.
Beckett told one of his actors, 'Hamm is a king in this chess game, lost from the start.' Hamm, who is unable to stand and is blind, features in Milligan’s chess set as the Black King, and so do the other three characters mentioned above. Clov, Hamm's servant who is unable to sit, is the White Knight. Hamm’s father, Nagg, and his mother Nell – who have no legs and live side by side in dustbins – are both rooks.
Showing me his original drawings for the project, Milligan explains how he trawled the internet for images from Beckett’s stage plays and was amazed by the sculptural poses of the actors.
'I found a photograph of Beckett directing Billie Whitelaw as Winnie in Happy Days, and used it as my model for Willie. Winnie (the White Queen) is not sitting in a mound of earth but wears a ballroom dress and is holding a parasol.
'John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape was my inspiration for the White King. When Krapp realises that he has sacrificed love for work, it is really very sad. So I posed his head to one side like a sigh. The hand is that of my father, who is always asking me for a "wee hand".'
The pawns are mostly stage props – a banana, a carrot, a pipe like Magritte’s pipe, a pair of boots, a bowler hat, the moon and a willow tree from Waiting for Godot, the looking glass and gun from Happy Days.
The Fermanagh company, Wee Furniture, made the wooden plinths for the chess pieces and the giant 16ft by 16ft chess board. Milligan cast the small bronze statuettes using the lost wax process. He used the bronze age method, a skill he perfected with the help of the Irish collective, Umha Aois, to fire one of them, but the rest were fired at the Mill Field Foundry in Belfast.
Having lived with this project for more than a year, how now does Milligan feel about Beckett? 'I like his sense of humour and I am quite reclusive like he was,' Milligan admits.
'Beckett is full of fear but fearless. He writes so beautifully and precisely, and there’s no room for small talk. He takes you to emotional places that are difficult and dark and which just get darker. It’s as if his pen is a scalpel. The first cut doesn’t hurt, but then he makes the point again and you realize you’ve been cut.'
Milligan is typically modest about the finished collection. 'All I know is that these pieces are holding their own. They have the gravitas of Beckett, the gravitas of bronze and they embody all the consideration that I have brought to them.'
This is surely one chess set that would have delighted and amused Beckett. Visitors to Enniskillen during the Happy Days Festival will be able to touch it, feel it, play it and appreciate it as the man himself would undoubtedly have done.
Happy Days runs in venues across Enniskillen from August 22 – 26. View the full festival programme.