Happy Days

Enniskillen is 'enriched, educated and entertained by the spirit and the words' of Samuel Beckett

In Enniskillen, the inaugural Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in honour of Samuel Beckett was a success for the variety of the events on offer, the world class artists who came and the overall creative concept realised by director Sean Doran and his team.

The townspeople and a large number of visitors were enriched, educated and entertained by the spirit and the words of the author described at the festival by his publisher John Calder as ‘the greatest writer of the 20th century, a man of rare genius'.

Meticulously planned, the programme aimed to reflect all aspects of Beckett’s life and work, with theatre productions, photography and art exhibitions, concerts of his favourite music, comedy, fringe and free shows, boat trips and sporting events.

Doran made clever use of numerous venues around the town: the main churches, Blake’s Hollow pub, the Castle Museum, Ardhowen theatre, Castlecoole house and grounds, and of course Portora Royal School where Beckett was a pupil from the age of 14 –17.

In large measure the charm of the festival derived from the witness of friends and collaborators who knew Beckett. Author Edna O’Brien, still beautiful and breathtakingly eloquent, quoted from his writing and recalled the courteous man who once walked her to her London flat and then, when she accompanied him on his way, insisted on walking her back to her door.

Anne Atik Arikha, who with her husband, the artist, Avigdor Arikha, were among Beckett’s closest friends in Paris, spoke of the many occasions when Beckett dined in their flat. Atik’s daughter Alba Arikha, who is also Beckett’s God daughter, described meeting him in the café Francais, part of the PLM St Jacques hotel, a brown beret on his head, a cigar between his lips, his eyes as blue as the sea.

At this same café, photographer John Minihan sat across the table from Beckett, two coffee cups and an ash tray between them and, as Beckett put his hand on the table, his eyes looking away, Minihan snapped the shot which has been called one of the defining portraits of the 20th century.

Antonia Fraser began her portrait of Beckett by exclaiming, 'What a handsome man he was!' and then spoke, as she does in her memoir, Must You Go, of the times she and her husband Harold Pinter met with Beckett.

John Calder, who was the only person who knew beforehand about Beckett’s secret marriage to Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil in Folkestone, and who used to spend entire nights until dawn playing chess and billiards and discussing life and art with Beckett, spoke, as he does in his new book, The Philosphy of Samuel Beckett, about Beckett’s theology.

Calder claims the Nobel Prize-winning author was also the 20th century’s greatest thinker. Beckett came from a religious family – his mother was a Quaker and his father a Church of Ireland Protestant – and he attended Portora, ‘a strict Calvinist school’. Although he may have lost his faith and railed against human suffering, yet there is not a single character in his work who does not have religious beliefs.

In his later writing, influenced by Manicheism and Gnosticism, Beckett daringly confronted the God of Genesis, yet ‘till the end of his life he never lost the bedrock of his religious upbringing. Although he was 47 when he first began to earn money from his work, this ‘secular saint’ gave most of it away to help others less fortunate than himself.

Featured writers and poets who were influenced or inspired by Beckett included Will Self, who read from his new novel Umbrella, which has been long listed for the Mann Booker Prize 2012, then conducted a series of witty and wry exchanges with the audience who were assembled in a basement lecture room at the Mount Lourdes convent school.

In the gloom, and from his lofty stance on the stage, Self likened his listeners to a crop of mushrooms. Professing his aversion to creative reading courses, he pronounced prolonged periods of solitary confinement as the essence of the writing life, a sentiment that Beckett would no doubt have endorsed.

Paul Muldoon, who famously penned 'Gathering Mushrooms', stood on the same platform the following day and, along with his poems ‘Azerbaijan’ and ‘The Big Twist’, read his own tribute, ‘Lines for the Centenary of Samuel Beckett’s Birth’.

At the Ardhowen theatre, a stark production of Krapp’s Last Tape (pictured above) directed and performed by Robert Wilson, relied heavily on slick lighting and sound effects, and seemed to leave quite a few of the Beckett scholars present cold.

Wilson may not bring to the role of Krapp the same warmth and vulnerability of, say, Patrick Magee, for whom the part was written, but he adequately conveyed the anguish and the nostalgia, the tenderness and the ache of impossible love. The play ends with the moving scene:

‘Upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted. She lay stretched out on the floorboards with her hands under head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively… We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem!’

Canadian film maker, Atom Egoyan’s wondrously ingenious installation, Steenbeckett was created using the last 20 minute reel, which is the longest ever single take on 35mm film, of his own television production featuring John Hurt as Krapp. The film passes in real time through an old fashioned Steenbeck editing desk and is then threaded in loops to create a surprising and original architectural structure.

The musical highlights included the superb Vienna Trio performing Haydn and Beethoven; Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Julius Drake (piano) who presented Beckett’s favourite ‘Winterreise’ by Franz Schubert, and the gloriously coquettish and talented soprano Sophie Daneman singing songs set to words by some of Beckett’s favourite writers.

Apart from some complaints about the lack of concert programmes, some hick ups at the booking office and a crush at some of the venues, these were genuinely Happy Days for festival goers and artists alike.