Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe
Director Adrian Dunbar and actor Frank McCusker bring the short play to a secret location in Enniskillen
The Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, inspired by the work of the powerhouse playwright Samuel Beckett, is something of a family affair this year.
The former Portora Royal School alumnus’ short play Catastrophe will be the inaugural production of the Ceithleann Island Theatre Company, which boasts strong Fermanagh credentials.
Innis Ceithleann was the original Irish name for Enniskillen and the man behind the Ceithleann Island Theatre Company is local man and internationally renowned actor, Adrian Dunbar. Dunbar has recruited Fermanagh actors Frank McCusker, Orla Charlton and Dylan Quinn to tackle, under his direction, what is widely regarded as one of Beckett’s most overtly political plays.
The prospect of interpreting Beckett on home turf is a source of some pride for McCusker, who oddly perhaps, has never performed in Enniskillen in a 25-year acting career that has carried him the length and breadth of the island. ‘It means an awful lot to me to come home and to be part of bringing Beckett here,’ enthuses McCusker. ‘It’s very exciting.’
For Dunbar, similar sentiments are tempered by the responsibilities that come with directing. ‘Obviously it’s a big thrill for me to be directing a Beckett play in my hometown,' says the BAFTA-nominated actor and screen writer 'but I don’t see it as an easy task. A lot of things have to come together for it to be right.’
Originally written in French in 1982, Catastrophe revolves around The Director (McCusker), The Assistant (Charlton) and The Protagonist (Quinn). This play within a play, which lasts for little more than a dozen minutes, sees The Director order the Assistant to manipulate the passive figure of The Protagonist.
‘It is a wonderful metaphor,’ says Dunbar. 'And an extremely interesting way of describing a totalitarian state and the crushing of the individual within it.’
Beckett dedicated the play to the then imprisoned Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, but as McCusker explains there is greater depth to Catastrophe than its seemingly political connotations.
‘There are different kinds of tyranny and I think you can read that out of it as well. It can echo an awful lot of things, whether it’s just relationships or a group of actors and a director and the tyranny of that. It reveals that about human nature as much as it does about politics or totalitarian regimes.’
Dunbar concurs: ‘Yes, it is a deeply political play bit it’s also extremely positive, like a lot of Beckett’s work that on the face of it seems to be dealing with a bleak, barren, empty or dark part of our existence and psyche.
'Somehow by confronting it and going on these close encounters with his work you can come away feeling uplifted and energized and it becomes life-affirming. It’s a strange effect that his work ultimately has and an effect he was pushing for, I think.’
Despite its themes of dictatorial control, imprisonment and the suggestion of torture, both physical and mental, Catastrophe, says McCusker, is not without its humor: ‘It’s dark and it’s tense but it’s also cruelly funny. That was what Beckett did. You know, extreme situations can be quite funny. I think Beckett has a wickedly dark sense of humour.’
Catastrophe is set in a rehearsal room where Beckett pulls the strings on his written cast, making them dance to his tune. Beyond the political metaphor it’s tempting to look for a sub-plot – perhaps Beckett’s little joke about the tyranny of the theatre.
‘I don’t know if that was his intention but you certainly get that,’ acknowledges McCusker. ‘You can read it on so many levels. There might be a little bit of a self parody going on.’
Dunbar, however, is reluctant to embrace such a sub-text: ‘I don’t think we should read very much into that. It’s very important that you don’t try and think your way through Beckett all the time,’ he warns. ‘It’s like Beckett said to Stephen Rea, "Think more about rhythm than about meaning".
'I think his work sometimes has an inbuilt rhythm that you need to adhere to for the moods and atmosphere of a piece to come across to an audience. That’s very important. That’s what you leave with. You leave with feeling.’
If rhythm is central to Beckett’s plays, then it is perhaps little wonder that the Enniskillen-schooled playwright was so precise in his instructions and so incensed when directors and actors took too many liberties with his vision.
How then, in a play as short as Catastrophe, can directors and actors bring a sense of themselves to the performance? ‘I believe that you shouldn’t be able to see the director’s hand at all,’ explains Dunbar.
‘I try to keep myself off the stage as much as possible. I see my job as delivering what the writer wants onto the stage and that’s quite an exacting job where Beckett is concerned. I don’t feel the necessity and I’m not insecure enough to put something else in there.
‘You mustn’t bring too many distractions onto the stage, pointing the audience in directions that he didn’t want them pointed in and therefore missing the point entirely. Beckett is the type of writer who moves you around emotionally and the wonderful thing about him is that we don’t quite know how he does it. That’s the thing that makes him a master. If you start fiddling around with the score, you’ll very quickly find that the music falls apart and so it is with Beckett.’
For McCusker, an element of interpretative freedom does exist in Beckett’s work: ‘There is a very precise set of instructions,’ he acknowledges, ‘but you can you find that within that stricture there is freedom for you as well. A writer will always leave that.
‘They can’t do it without you either, so there has to be a bit of the influence of your experience of life and whatever craft you’ve garnered down the years. It’s always a challenge but each actor will always bring their own thing to a role, even if it is very prescribed and very precise. Hopefully we’ll deliver what Beckett requires of us and it remains for the audience to decide in the end.’
One unusual aspect of the Ceithleann Island Theatre Company’s production of Catastrophe at Happy Days is that the audience will be collected by bus and delivered to a secret location where the play will be staged.
‘I want to take people slightly out of their comfort zone,’ Dunbar explains. 'Take them on a bit of a mystery tour. They come in and we all share the experience and before you know it, it’s over. We’re back on the bus and we’re heading into Enniskillen and we’re wondering what it was all about,’ he laughs.
The imaginative use of locations is a significant part of the charm of Happy Days, and is due in no small part to the vision of festival director, Sean Doran. ‘A lot of what’s great about this festival is simply down to Sean’s curation,’ offers Dunbar.
‘We’re so lucky to have him there, not least because of his international context but because he identified Enniskillen as a place where you could start a Beckett festival. The fact that people in the town go into venues that they otherwise wouldn’t go into or see inside... if you like, it’s the opening up of the town.’
McCusker is also quick to praise Doran: ‘I think it’s very exciting that he’s brought back to Northern Ireland an idea, to invent a festival that hopefully in time will potentially grow in stature like the Edinburgh Festival or the Kassel Documenta, and that will appeal to people internationally. There’s visual art, there’s dance, there’s wonderful music. The quality of the artists that Sean has attracted is just wonderful.’
Happy Days has grown in its first three years and can already lay claim to being one of the very finest arts festivals in Ireland. As Dunbar points out, this is a festival for everyone.
‘I have to say that the local people have been extremely supportive from the get go. I know the people of the town so I can see them in the audiences, getting involved in the discussions, going to the readings, and getting in touch with their own town, which is really brilliant. I’m excited about what it’s doing for the town.’
Undoubtedly there will be those dissuaded by the reputation Beckett’s work has for being high-brow or somehow bleak in outlook. Dunbar sees it differently. ‘I do think that the more I engage with the work the more positive and uplifting it becomes. Beckett has many, many things to tell us and many, many things to make us feel.’
And to the skeptics, Dunbar has this to say: ‘Come and join in these very unique experiences that we’re having with Beckett, with small intimate audiences in beautifully curated locations. It’s an extremely unique and memorable experience for anybody involved.’
Happy Days International Beckett Festival runs in venues throughout Enniskillen from July 31 – August 10. Catastrophe runs twice a day at varying times from July 31 to August 4 and from August 7 to August 10.