Beckett in Border Country

Happy Days International Beckett Festival returns to Enniskillen with new connections and a wealth of events

It seems that there is a Samuel Beckett Avenue in Paris, near where Beckett met with fellow members of the French Resistance during the German occupation. Unfortunately it is now a minor thoroughfare, closed to traffic and notoriously difficult to find either on foot or on a Paris map.

This year’s Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, however, is unmissable. Occuring in the 25th anniversary year of the Irish writer's death, it is a Beckett extravaganza on a grand scale, promoted widely across Northern Ireland and featuring an impressive cast of cultural big-hitters and social and literary commentators.

Alfred Brendel, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Germaine Greer, Roy Foster, Antony Gormley and Gavin Bryars will be there, to share their own insights on Beckett: the writer, the man, the friendships, the cult and the legacy.

Few aspects of Beckett’s life and works will remain unexplored over the next fortnight in the border town. And imaginative use is made of venues, such as the Marble Arch Caves, early morning boat trips to Lakeland islands, castles, schools and stately homes. Plus ‘the secret location’ promised for Beckett’s one-act play, Catastrophe, directed by Adrian Dunbar.

In addition to the plays, readings, talks, concerts and radio broadcasts on offer, Happy Days boasts Beckett-themed shop displays, haircuts, shortbreads, bicycles and menus. There is undoubtedly great local enthusiasm for the festival, which has helped put Enniskillen on the cultural map.

But the programmers nonetheless have some friendly, local advice for the visitor: 'Watch out on Sunday mornings, as mostly everything is closed, except the churches.'

Beckett himself might have remembered this Sunday morning stillness from his days in Enniskillen, when he was a boarder at Portora Royal School in the early 1920s, like his fellow alumnus Oscar Wilde decades earlier.

 

It took the festival’s founder and principal director, Sean Doran, to see the potential for a successful and wide-ranging festival in Enniskillen, it being the scene of Beckett’s schooldays. And this year Happy Days expands into a 12-day event, clustered around two intensive weekends of activity.

‘This longer time allowed us to offer our core devoted audience a greater chance to see more of the festival,' says Doran. 'The longer period also helps militate against limited accommodation availability during the summer in Fermanagh.'

One might be forgiven for thinking that Doran would have run out of ideas by now, in this third year of directing the festival. But, he says, every year brings new ideas, each one more original and dynamic than before. For example, this year sees the ‘first-time ever’ shared public reading of the entire text of James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake in Blake’s Pub in the Hollow.

Any volunteer who can lay claim to a first name, surname or any other familial name link with a Finnegan is eligible to participate. As Doran adds humourously: ‘If you’re a Finn, you’re in.' With a prescribed four pages of allocated text, participants can either ‘read, sing, whisper, shout or even dance to the rhythms’ of the novel, which owes its inspiration in part to the friendship between Joyce and Beckett.

This year’s programme is particularly rich in music, with three concerts by Gavin Bryars and three of Shostakovich’s music: a string quartet, piano trio and a Jewish Song Cycle. And a series of free, late evening concerts ‘of electronic tape and text’ in St Michael’s Church will allow audiences to ‘come and go’.

Shostakovich is also the subject of a talk by Observer arts critic Ed Vulliamy, who has just completed a biography of the composer. Departing from the conventional view of Shostakovich as a repressed but privately critical Soviet dissident, the author promises a more rounded portrait of the composer as a ‘lover of woman and vodka’.

As well as the concerts there is the musical ‘piece de resistance’ of the festival: an evening with [the now retired] pianist Alfred Brendel talking about his lengthy career in music and of his new ‘post-career’ as a published poet. This and the greater richness of this year’s musical offerings hint at Doran's original background as a musician – Doran is a music graduate of University of East Anglia and accomplished clarinettist.

One marvels at how Doran manages to attract to Enniskillen artists of such international standing as Brendel and Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. Brandauer, one of his country’s most renowned actor-directors, will be performing in Krapp’s Last Tape at the Ardhowen Theatre (in German with English surtitles) and it will be an opportunity to compare his version of the play with Robert Wilson’s in the 2012 festival.

As well as artists, Doran also attracts high calibre audiences. Visitors to previous festivals might well have found themselves sitting alongside American actor David Soul or Irish actor Barry McGovern, both keen Beckett devotees.

There are of course some Happy Days perennials: two separate performances this year of Waiting for Godot, one in Yiddish and one in French, both with surtitles. The Beckett Chess Set returns to Enniskillen Castle Grounds, with Doran hoping that it will not catch fire this year, as happened in August 2012.

Beckett’s favourite music, Schubert’s 'Winterreise', is this year’s closing concert in St Macartan’s Cathedral, performed by baritone Sir John Tomlinson and pianist Julius Blake. They will have a hard task to match the 'Winterreise' of Ian Bostridge and the same accompanist in the inaugural festival in 2012.

‘Beckett once said "Music always wins",' explains Doran. 'And in our third festival it certainly does this. I think the author would have loved to attend were he still with us. The second weekend offers a musical climax to the festival structure, and the Beckett Schubertiade, in particular, I hope will remain as a constant in future years with 'Winterreise' at its centre.'

Add in talks and discussions with feminist writer-turned ecological warrior Germaine Greer, broadcaster John Simpson and Oxford-based historian and literary critic Roy Foster – plus chess, rugby and tennis matches – and you get the special flavour of Happy Days 2014.

But it all begins in Belfast, where Beckett was briefly a teacher in Campbell College in the late 1920s, before he left Ireland to work in Paris. For Happy Days 2014, the festival has a new outreach partner in Linen Hall Library ,which kicks off with a three-day ‘gateway event’ of Beckett lectures, talks, discussions and performances.

Deborah Douglas, programme manager at the Linen Hall, says that the event is aimed at everyone, from the Beckett novice to the academic. 'This is the first Beckett event which the Linen Hall has staged and we have had a very positive response to date. We expect great interest in our Becoming Beckett exhibition, a selection of memorabilia on loan from Reading University where the main Beckett archives are housed.

'There has been much interest in recently acquired Beckett notebooks, which will be on public view for the first time in Ireland.'

Beckett in Belfast – if one might call it that – starts in the Linen Hall Library in the evening on July 29 with ‘Staging Beckett: Performance and Discussion’. The evening features actors, directors and academics alongside excerpts of Beckett performances by the C21 Theatre Company, and is rounded off with a panel discussion.

Then, on July 31, it’s back to Enniskillen, where Happy Days is now established as one of the major cross-cultural, performance-based events in these islands – all thanks to the imagination and dedication of Sean Doran and his hard-working team.

It is now exactly 10 years since musician-turned impresario Doran brought English National Opera’s Wagner to Glastonbury. And few would have imagined that Doran could top that for innovative thinking.

But in the 45th year since Beckett carried off the Nobel Prize for Literature – and for France too, not Ireland, it must be said – Happy Days continues to confirm Doran as the man who brought Beckett back to border country.

Doran now plans to ‘return’ Beckett to Paris for a dedicated festival there in March 2016. ‘Paris will have its turn then, joining Enniskillen as its younger sister festival,' Doran reveals. 'The two annually working together representing Beckett’s dual homelands: Ireland and France.'

Happy Days International Beckett Festival runs at various venues in Enniskillen from July 31 to August 10.