Happy Days Beckett Festival Preview

Provocative productions, world premieres and even a spot of cricket are all lined up as part of the fourth annual celebration of Enniskillen's Nobel Prize-winning son

Happy days are here again. For fans of the great modernist Samuel Beckett, Enniskillen is the place to be from July 23 to August 3 as the Happy Days International Enniskillen Beckett Festival returns with a feast of all things Beckett.

Irish and world premieres of seminal Beckett works, including Waiting for Godot by Bertold Brecht’s renowned Berliner Ensemble – on the 60th anniversary of the UK premiere – means that HDIEBF 2015 has a particularly strong theatre programme. But there’s much more to the HDIEBF than Beckett’s plays, with classical and contemporary music, dance, film, and comedy enriching the programme.

The festival concept, in fact, is so broad that founder and director Sean Doran has coined a term for it.

'I call it a Bio-Festival,' he says, 'both in the sense of representing biography through the work but also as an organic approach to getting inside the work year on year and opening it up in different ways.' 

Getting inside Beckett’s work means getting inside the man. The one illuminates the other. Festival goers almost get to walk in Beckett’s shoes, with beautifully curated events staged in the haunts of Beckett’s youth – the school, pubs, churches, Fermanagh countryside and cricket pitches that Beckett knew.

Beckett remains the only Nobel prize-winner to feature in the cricket almanac Wisden and his love of the game will be commemorated in an international match on July 28 when a Beckett XI (The Theatrical Cavaliers Cricket Club) plays the English, Pinter XI (Gaieties Cricket Club) in Kesh.

This isn’t the first time that sport has featured at the HDIEBF; rugby was played in the very first edition - an early pointer to Doran’s longer-term festival vision.

'I want it to be a seriously international sports festival as much as it is an international arts festival,' says Doran. 'Next year it will be the first ever arts and sports festival, because Beckett was so sports oriented.'

It’s a typically bold move from the former director of both the Belfast Festival at Queen's and the English National Opera. 'Never go into the groove,' he says. 'It’s a major danger for festivals. You do have that vanguard responsibility on behalf of your industry to take risks and change things continually.'

For many years Doran has habitually challenged the status quo with his imaginative use of locations and it’s a defining feature of HDIEBF too.

Enniskillen

'I’m very aware that buildings are 19th century concepts and constructs for the arts,' Doran relates. In fact, it was while Doran was director of the Perth Festival at the beginning of the millennium that his directorial concept gathered momentum.

'I began to look more into context of placing work in unorthodox venues and choosing very carefully through knowing the artist and the work a venue that actually would give more to the spirit of the work than the neutrality of the same old concert hall or theatre, or whatever,' says Doran. 'That is what interests and excites me about engaging with a place like Enniskillen.' 

The cavernous depths of the Marble Arch Caves have formed a spectacular cathedral for unforgettable events at the HDIEBF. A dormitory packed with beds in Beckett’s former boarding school of Petora provided the most unusual yet apposite theatre and ‘stalls’ for a reading of the author’s late prose piece Company.

The walls of Enniskillen’s pubs, castle and gaol, candle-lit Masonic Hall and abandoned church have all resounded to the particular rhythms and logic of Beckett’s work. So too, the pre-Christian and monastic islands of Lough Erne provide dramatic settings for the traditional, early-morning readings of Beckett’s prose.

'I’m not into just putting things on cliff edges or islands for the sake of a gimmick,' Doran emphasizes. 'I‘m very far removed from gimmicks. The space underpins the work itself.' 

This year, the unlikely setting of the Necarne Equestrian Centre in Necarne Castle, Irvinestown will host a world premiere production of Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra, featuring the Ulster Orchestra’s chamber ensemble and mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene. Directed by Sophie Hunter, this multi-media performance weds opera, theatre, film and sound-installation and promises to be one of the most striking events of the programme. 

'It’s an example of the festival’s ability to foreground a fifteen-minute cantata that’s rarely gets an outing because of its length,' explains Doran, 'but we’re placing it in the largest venue we’ve ever used. I think it’s going to be an absolute knockout for audiences this year. Something very different.' 

Other writers’ influence on Beckett is an annual theme of the HDIEBF and in previous years Dante and James Joyce have cast lengthy shadows. This year, T.S. Eliot makes his bow, with recitations of Four Quartets and The Waste Land. There’s little formal connection between Beckett and Eliot, but for Doran they’re kindred spirits.

'The sharing of space between Beckett and Eliot is everything in terms of them being the top modernists of the twentieth century. Eliot changed the world of poetry with The Waste Land in ’22 and Beckett the world of drama with Godot in ’53.'

Carducci String Quartet

This year’s HDIEBF is partnered by the T.S. Eliot Foundation, whose generous patronage to the tune of £300,000 over the next three years is timely indeed.

'It very much saved the festival,' acknowledges Doran gratefully. 'The funders that were there in the first place, the Arts Council and so on are absolutely what has kept us going but this has saved it, without question, to do another three years.' 

Given Northern Ireland’s low ceiling for arts funding - exacerbated by cuts – HDIEBF’s survival as an international arts festival has been under threat. It’s this somewhat precarious situation that has led Doran to establish sister festivals dedicated to two other giants of the Irish arts - Oscar Wilde and Brian Friel. A Wilde Weekend (1-4 May) by Lough Ernest and the cross-border Lughnasa International Friel Festival (20-31 August) – divided between Belfast and Donegal – represent highly creative responses to the vulnerability of the HDIEBF.

'The solution was to turn ourselves into a year-round operation,' says Doran, 'to have more output, create more income possibilities and to share overhead costs and core costs between three festivals instead of upon one.'

The challenge, of course, will be to get the Wilde and Friel festivals on their feet but Doran is quietly confident that this is the way forward. 'I would hope that within two years the strategy will work and the Beckett festival will be supported because of the other two.'

It’s a shame that the HDIEBF--one of the finest young international arts festivals in Ireland--cannot thrive on its own but it’s a sign of the times. 'We struggle very hard to keep it going but we need support and better support,' exhorts Doran. The classical music programme at this year’s festival has been cut in half and the visual arts have been axed.

Nevertheless, the core programme remains impressive. As Doran puts it, the width of the festival may have been tightened but the height has shot up. 'It’s very strong in the pure Beckett area, probably more than any previous year.' 

A major highlight of the fortnight - and a wonderful coup for Enniskillen - will be the Berliner Ensemble’s Waiting for Godot (July 31 - August 2) in the Ardowen Theatre.

Waiting for Godot

Director George Tabori had a special relationship with Beckett and was granted certain latitude with the iconic play. Though the play is entirely intact, Doran is keen to underline, this will undoubtedly be a controversial, provocative interpretation.

'It will be entirely unique,' Doran enthuses. 'You will never see a Godot done in this way ever again and certainly never in English. Permission will never be there for it.'

With Beckett’s notoriety for meticulous stage directions it will be fascinating to see what liberties the Berliner Ensemble takes. Doran, however, isn’t giving much away. 'This is something which both obeys the rules but also works outside them to create something very special. It’s a troupe not to be missed. They are just legendary.' 

Another key event is French dance troupe Maguy Marin’s May B. Inspired by Beckett’s writing, it premiered in 1981 and remains a classic of contemporary dance. With fifteen dancers Maguy Marin is the largest company ever at the HDIEBF and it has the honour of officially opening the festival. May B’s pole position is a nod to Enniskillen’s sister Beckett festival, which will open in Paris in March 2016.

'To be honest, Paris is another strategic move on behalf of Enniskillen to secure and protect this festival for the next five to ten years,' says Doran. It’s another savvy, creative response to the savage cuts in arts-funding in Northern Ireland that show no sign of abating.

'I have to find a way of bringing external money to Northern Ireland as a way of supporting what goes on in Northern Ireland,' Doran explains. 'That’s where the answer lies.' 

As ever, a wide-ranging series of high-profile talks will shed light on themes close to Beckett’s art and life. This year sees the inaugural Billie Whitelaw Memorial Talk, given by one of the great Beckett actors, Lisa Dwan. A regular at the HDIEBF, Dwan’s performance of Not I in the Marble Arch Caves in 2013 and her breath-taking trilogy of Beckett’s short plays last year have left vivid impressions seared on the memories of those fortunate to have witnessed them.

'Lisa’s milestones are remarkable, not only with Beckett but with theatre itself,' says Doran. 'It was clear that she could give us an engaging talk to kick off this annual lecture.' 

A world premiere of Beckett’s radio play All That Fall - directed by Max Stafford-Clark - will pitch audiences into complete darkness for a surreal, forty-five minute ride. A little mirth comes to the festival through the radio plays of comedian Tony Hancock. Quite how Hancock worked his way into a Beckett festival is anybody’s guess.

'Well, he got in the back door I have to admit,' laughs Doran. Comedy, however, has always played a significant role in the festival. 'I continually try and include a comedy area in the festival because I want the humor of Beckett to have a light shone on it as well. The perception of Beckett for so many years was of heavily weighted, over-serious, intellectual work only, but there’s an absolute silver lining of comedy going on everywhere.'

Whereas many might see Dublin or Paris as more fitting stages for a Beckett festival of such ambition, Doran instead sees Enniskillen as the ideal setting. 'This was the place where Beckett’s mind was forming and being trained and shaped. Bringing his work back here after his entire life of creativity is a very rewarding thing to do.' 

Enniskillen too, has taken to the HDIEBF; only once in four years has Doran failed to receive permission to use a requested location. 'It’s been nothing but an open door and a welcome,” says Doran of the host town. “I think there’s also been a great warmth from the people towards the festival.' 

By staging Beckett in Enniskillen’s shared, everyday spaces Doran sends out the message that Beckett is not the exclusive property of arts cognoscenti to be enjoyed in hidden precincts. On the contrary, Beckett speaks to everybody, everywhere.

Happy Days International Enniskillen Beckett Festival runs from July 23 - August 3. For detailed listings search for upcoming events in Enniskillen in our What's On section.