Happy Days Beckett Festival Launches

After a long bus ride to Enniskillen, John Higgins declines a haircut to take in the full festival programme

Samuel Beckett is the poet of the absurdity of human existence – our desperate search for meaning, our individual isolation and the inadequacy of language to express our desires. His sets are dressed with blasted heaths, skeletal trees, inhabited dustbins and 'bells for waking and bells for sleeping'.

There is humour in the work, but it’s never out of earshot of the creak of a gibbet, and Beckett's comedy is usually shackled to a tragic prefix – the two conjoined on that single 'c'. He seems, then, an odd choice for a sunny, summer festival, especially one that is so palpably a labour of love as the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival.

But for the festival’s artistic director, Sean Doran, to have pieced together such an exquisite and nuanced package – which is also part of the London 2012 Festival – it can hardly be anything but love. And though the rain pelts the windows of therather comfortable press bus making its way to Enniskillen from Belfast for the launch of the festival, I dream that the sun will indeed shine on the River Erne come August 23.

Over five days in August, Enniskillen, Ireland’s only island town, is going to be over-run by all things Beckett. The venues include castles, a cathedral, an 18th Century Manor House, pubs and the length of an entire street. Another focus will be the Portora Royal School that Beckett attended, as did Oscar Wilde before him.

The artistic line-up includes work by renowned conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth; Dublin’s Pan Pan Theatre will be showing their production of All that Fall and Irish fiddler Tommy Peoples will be giving a bespoke performance based on Krapp’s Last Tape. Visitors to Castle Coole will be treated to the sight of Anthony Gormley’s 'Tree for Waiting for Godot', standing regally in the Grand Yard.

Robert Wilson directs and stars in his acclaimed production of Krapp’s Last Tape, which is coming home after being a major hit in Paris, Rome and Rio De Janero, and Theatre Clastic provide a Beckett experience that all the family can enjoy with a puppet version of Act Without Words 1.

Antonia Frasier and her husband, the playwright Harold Pinter, were close friends with the writer, and she will be discussing the profound influence Beckett had on her husband’s work. Authors John Banville and George Craig, meanwhile, look at Beckett’s vacillation between the English and French languages and the challenges writers face with the translation of their work.

Gavin Bryars and the Ensemble are premiering The Beckett Songbook, several of the writer's poems set to music, and Duke Special will be playing the Darling Street Methodist church, for some reason.

In visual arts, the paintings of Jeremy Henderson are fierce, evocative landscapes, eerily redolent of Beckett’s world, and sculptor Alan Milligan has produced a specially commissioned outdoor chess set based on Beckettian characters in the grounds of Enniskillen Castle.

It is the level of detail that truly impresses. The boat that shuttles you to Devenish Island, for instance, has been renamed 'Smeraldina' after the character in More Pricks than Kicks. Devenish Island itself is home to the festival's logo, a benign winged head, taken from the grave-stones that Beckett would have seen on rowing trips out from Portora.

The audience for All that Fall will be seated in rocking chairs on skull emblazoned cushions and in a forest of glowing amber light bulbs. There will even be Beckett-related menus available locally, with radishes and turnips seeming to feature fairly heavily!

In Blake’s of the Hollow a barber will be on hand to give Samuel Beckett haircuts – a feature I was unable to take advantage of as I already have one – and the confluence of drunkenness and sharp, pointy scissors is a bit rich for my blood.

The array of pastimes and distractions on offer is almost dizzying. There will even be sporting events, cricket, of course, Beckett was quite the big-man-on-campus and is the only Nobel Prize winner to feature in Wisden’s cricketing almanac, but also rowing, cycling and even a freshly minted sport: 'Muckball' (a slow paced, low scoring type of rugby for wheezing middle-aged academics).

There is comedy, catering, music in the morning and talks and discussions on into the small hours. There is an immersive quality of this festival. You are in Beckettown! This is a staggering achievement and a fitting tribute to the man’s genius. Go see it.

Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival runs from August 23 - 27. Visit the festival website for more information and to purchase tickets.