Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival
Transforming everyday places into magical worlds, the fourth annual celebration portrays the Nobel Prize-winning writer in all his colours
If Enniskillen isn’t careful it runs the risk of becoming known for hosting the best arts festival in Ireland.
The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival isn’t the only festival to stage world class theatre, dance, music, comedy, film, exhibitions and talks, but it’s doubtful if any others could match the imaginative locations that are an outstanding feature of this one.
This year is no exception. An abandoned castle deep in the Fermanagh countryside; an underground tunnel; Lough Erne’s islands; a huge equestrian arena; a school hall; churches of all denominations and a boat are all venues for this year’s wonderfully eclectic programme. Even the traffic stops for a twenty minute recital of Philip Glass’ Quartet No. 2 by the Carducci String Quartet.
The more conventional Ardhowen Theatre is home to the Berliner Ensemble’s provocative interpretation of Waiting for Godot – where the wall between actors and audience is broken down – and Maguy Marin’s stunning dance-cum-theatre production May B; a surrealist’s ballet whose vibrant physical poetry captures the spirit of Beckett with grace and precision. However, it’s the variety of venues in and around Enniskillen, many of them quite unusual, that gives the festival its special character.
Topping them all this year for vision and sheer audacity is the Necarne Equestrian Centre in the grounds of an uninhabited castle, where Benjamin Britten’s cantata Phaedra is given a spectacular, multimedia makeover, guided by director Sophie Hunter. Sonic drone waves and darkness greet the arriving audience, plus the incredible sight of mezzo soprano Ruby Philogene towering thirty feet tall, her enormous white dress cascading beneath her.
The singer – backed by the Ulster Orchestra - is mesmerizing as the tragic figure of Greek mythology, rotating slowly as her powerful vocal performance conveys all the passion of Jean Racine’s 17th century tale of lust, jealousy and rage. In a stunning finale, Phaedra’s suicide is represented by the gradual dissolving of her enormous white dress, designed by Kirstie MacLeod. The audience is hypnotized; long after the applause abates people seem reluctant to leave the scene.
An Enniskillen woman now living in Galway and visiting the festival for the fourth consecutive year speaks of the festival’s impact on the town. 'I think it has transformed the physical spaces as I knew them,' she explains.
'As a Catholic it was mind-blowing to go into St. Macartin’s Hall. I’d also never been to St. Macartin’s Cathedral before the concerts here. Growing up here,' says the woman, recalling darker times, 'working class Catholic and Protestants didn’t mix socially.'
It’s also likely that the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival has encouraged a few locals to set foot for the first time in St. Michael’s Church, seduced by the preview of Beckett’s All That Fall; ditto visits for some folk to the old Unionist Hall, where Neil Pearson’s The Missing Hancocks rekindles the comic magic of Tony Hancock.
Though Hancock’s BBC radio shows had no formal connection with Beckett, comedians are an integral part of the festival’s ethos, mirroring the humor that laces much of Beckett’s work. There are laughs aplenty in the world premiere production of All That Fall, where the blindfolded audience experience a live adaptation of Beckett’s radio play in glorious quadrophonic sound.
So too, Denis Conway’s unforgettable monologue in Beginning to End champions Beckett’s unique sense of humor. Staged in the dungeon-like servants’ tunnels in Castle Coole, Conway’s gripping performance is a rollercoaster ride of off-the-wall hilarity and blood-chilling psychological drama.
Beginning to End was originally conceived by Beckett favourite Jack MacGowran in the mid-1960s and this new adaptation, directed by Conall Morrison, is part of the festival’s tribute to the actor, in partnership with the Nerve Centre.
MacGowran’s film credits include The Quiet Man, The Exorcist and Doctor Zhivago amongst many others. This great Irish character actor is fondly remembered in a talk at Southwest College chaired by Kate O’Toole and featuring MacGowran’s daughter Tara MacGowran as well as Garech Browne, the head of Claddagh Records, who had recorded MacGowran reading Beckett’s poetry.
In a recorded video message actor Stephen Rea pays his own tribute to MacGowran. 'I owe him so much,' acknowledges the Academy Award-nominated Belfast actor. 'He pointed the way. He pointed the way for a lot of us.'
There is, almost inevitably, insight into Beckett as well and it will be difficult to erase the image Browne evokes of Beckett in a dingy German discotheque with mime artist Marcel Marceau. Another Beckett actor remembered in two notable talks is the late Billie Whitelaw. Beckett biographer Jim Knowlson gives personal insight into the close working relationship between the actress and the festival's namesake.
In the inaugural Billie Whitelaw Memorial Lecture Lisa Dwan shares her experience of being mentored by Whitelaw for Beckett’s uniquely challenging monologue Not I. In what is above all a heartfelt tribute to Whitelaw, Dwan also reveals something of Beckett’s craft and the daunting challenges involved in interpreting his most demanding roles.
The festival also offers the chance to experience some of Beckett’s lesser known works. On Devonish Island Frankie McCafferty and Vincent Higgins give a memorable performance of the Adrian Dunbar-directed Ohio Impromptu – a play about loss.
And in what has become a festival tradition a bus relays people to a secret location – Castle Caldwell this year – where actor Ian McElhinney and director Netia Jones’s haunting theatrical treatment of Beckett’s final prose piece Stirrings Still – a poetic portrait of mortality – brings some to tears.
For McElhinney, such unusual venues are one of the strengths of the festival. 'I love it,' says the Game of Thrones actor. 'It’s like a pilgrimage. You set out on a journey and you come to some little sanctuary and you get some gem, all being well. Then you travel on. I think it’s magic. It’s one of the things that makes this a very unique festival.'
This year the festival announced the patronage of the T.S. Eliot Foundation. Its generous support will ensure the continuation of the festival for the next three years at least, so it is fitting that The Wasteland is presented in the Ardhowen Theatre to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Eliot’s death. This special reading of one of the twentieth century’s greatest poems features musical accompaniment by a jazz quintet led by Nick Roth and evocative period-film projection.
Early birds enjoy mystery boat trips to unnamed island destinations in Loch Erne for short readings of Beckett and T.S. Eliot. For night owls, there is a midnight reading of Eliot’s The Four Quartets in the Graan Monastery, interspersed with Beethoven’s String Quartet Op 131 performed by the Carducci String Quartet.
In the Southwest College, Lorna Smyth’s stunning exhibition of paintings inspired by Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape would grace any gallery in the country. A stone’s throw away in the Higher Bridges Gallery an exhibition celebrating the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s English language premiere brings together photos, programs, drawings, video and other memorabilia.
There is a little bit of something for everyone over the course of thirteen days, and with local shops selling everything from Beckett black sausage butties to Beckett haircuts the locals of Enniskillen warm to the festival.
The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival portrays Beckett’s diversity in all his colours. But perhaps the festival’s greatest success in its short, four-year life has been to act as a catalyst for change – transforming everyday places into magical worlds and encouraging people, whether Beckett fans or not, to see their environment in new ways.