Beckett is back: ‘It’s entirely unfair that he is seen as alien or grim’

So says Happy Days festival director Seán Doran of Beckett. Doran’s aim is to break new ground, and with the celebration of the playwright in Enniskillen he has pulled that off


Seán Doran is a man who’s known for his big ideas, and – more importantly – for making them happen. The Derry-born artistic director has carpeted Trafalgar Square in London with fake grass for a performance of Puccini’s La Bohème, peopled a salt lake in western Australia with 51 Antony Gormley sculptures and, perhaps most memorably, introduced English National Opera to Glastonbury, where they blew away 50,000 festival-goers with a thunderous extract from Wagner’s The Valkyrie.

Doran has brought the same exuberance and boldness of vision to a much more intimate, but no less ambitious stage. After its inaugural outing last year, this summer sees the return of Doran’s latest venture: Happy Days, the international Samuel Beckett Festival, in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. From August 22nd to 26th, Enniskillen will become Beckett-Town, its streets alive with international theatre, music, dance, art and comedy, all in celebration of that most enigmatic, thrilling and mysterious of Irish writers, who just happened to go to school in the town.

Beckett’s favourite literary work, Dante’s Divine Comedy, is the main inspiration for this year’s festival: audiences will be ferried by three silent boats to an encounter with the Inferno in the depths of the Marble Arch Caves, while Purgatorio is evoked by early morning boat trips to the uninhabited islands of Lough Erne, where they will hear readings by the likes of Miranda Richardson, John Hegley, and husband and wife Adrian Dunbar and Anna Nygh. (The sailings will be accompanied by a breakfast of black tea and dry toast, except for the Sunday trip to Paris Island, when audiences will be served with coffee and croissants.)

It really is an all-star cast: other luminaries heading for Enniskillen to become “tellers” of Beckett’s short prose, which will be performed in a number of curious venues – a pub, a PSNI station, a crypt, a classroom at Beckett’s old school, Portora Royal – include Juliet Stevenson, Neil Pearson, Frank Skinner and Patrick McCabe.

Then, in the literary strand of the festival, philosopher AC Grayling, novelist Margaret Drabble, Irish poets Tom Paulin and John Montague and the veteran broadcaster Clive James will share their memories, thoughts and ideas about Beckett’s life, work and influence. And, with 100 performances of 50 shows in 30 different venues across Enniskillen, that’s still only skimming the surface of this extraordinary five-day immersion in all things Beckett.

‘I needed a new paradigm’
After 15 years working for large institutions and festivals such as English National Opera and the Perth International Arts Festival, Seán Doran knew that he wanted to “do beginnings” again.

“I am a natural change agent,” he says, “and institutions are like elastic bands – you can stretch them but you can’t alter them to the extent you might desire to. And I have become disillusioned with festivals; so often they are just lazy lists of events. I believe that you have a responsibility, as a festival director, to break new ground, to make things happen that alter the audience’s thinking. So I needed a new paradigm. I wanted to do what no one else would think of doing, and I knew that there was no point in staying in capital cities to do that.”

After he left English National Opera in 2006, Doran took a year off to ponder the way ahead. It was then that he started to read Samuel Beckett, and the idea for the festival first began to take shape.

“It was so inspiring to me, on a daily basis – the unreserved intensity of the writing,” says Doran. But his admiration for the Nobel-prize-winning writer made the project all the more challenging, because of the responsibility of channelling Beckett’s work. “Of all the festivals I have done in my life, this is the one I have feared the most,” he confides.

One of the ways that Doran has stayed true to Beckett is in making sure that every aspect of the programme is tied to the source in some way, even if that means turning down well-known names or productions. “Everything in it – in my head alone – has a connection to Beckett, and that for me is essential. The greatest thing is that, last year, the audience got that. They could sense the holistic vision behind it.”

Like his muse, Doran has a taste for the curious and the absurd: for example, at last year’s opening concert, the Moonlight Sonata was played twice over, in a wry nod to the “same again” of Acts 1 and 2 of Waiting for Godot. Doran is adamant that it was quite different second time around.

‘Everything must have a reason’
If Seán Doran has a defining characteristic as an artistic director, it is that drive for connectedness, and for the meaning it confers. For him, it is what distinguishes a curated festival from a random jumble of events: “I think in geometry, numbers, architecture. A festival has a shape, from beginning to end. It must have balance, symmetry or asymmetry, as need be. Everything must have a reason, for me, perhaps even to an autistic extent.”

In fact, Doran says that the whole idea of a multi-arts festival came from Beckett himself, and his capacity to draw nourishment and inspiration from a variety of art forms. “In the 1930s, he was intensely interested in developing himself in the visual arts, and he toyed with the idea of being a critic. He would stand in front of paintings for two hours at a time,” says Doran. “He was close friends with painters, and he was also a proficient pianist. Beckett always talked of the ‘Beethoven pause’ as a new form of tension or expectation, and the three dots he uses in his prose directly reflects that. And the stillness of his drama is itself painterly.”

But this is no hushed, precious or excessively reverent tribute to Beckett’s work. The whole festival is shot through with bursts of silliness and fun. Last time, there were Krapp sandwiches and Beckett haircuts available, and this year, there is a new strand – Fooling around Beckett, or FAB – which will acknowledge the inspiration that Beckett drew from the world of mime, cirque, slapstick and buffoonery. “It’s just another way in,” says Doran. “I think it’s entirely unfair that he is seen as alien or grim, and this is one of the challenges at the very core of the festival: to get people excited about Beckett.”

As for the future, Doran has imaginative plans, in the shape of an annual two-day Beckett in Paris festival, the first of which will take place in the writer’s adopted city from March 18th to 20th next year. “I had always intended a French connection to join the Enniskillen event, because of this French-Irish duality so embedded in Beckett, the man and the work,”says Doran.

But in the meantime, in the streets, caves, pubs, churches, discos, schools and crypts of Enniskillen, the anticipation is building. Before long, the inspired madness that is Happy Days will be here again.

Happy Days: Festival highlights

Deep in the Marble Arch Caves, a special performance of Beckett’s short play Not I, followed by a reading from Dante’s Inferno, and the plaintive strains of Dido’s Lament, sung by mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene.

Purgatorio In the early morning, small groups will travel to White, Devenish, Inishmacsaint and Paris Islands for an encounter with Beckett’s short prose, read by Miranda Richardson, John Hegley, Adrian Dunbar and Anna Nygh, and Ronnie Golden.

A special Saturday for lovers of classical music On Saturday morning (August 24th), Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich will perform Messiaen’s Visions de L’Amen for Two Pianos; in the afternoon, Florian Boesch (baritone) will sing Schubert’s Winterreise, Beckett’s favourite musical work by his favourite composer, accompanied by Roger Vignoles (piano).

Fulcrum A new piece from the Fermanagh-based company Dylan Quinn Dance Theatre, which takes its inspiration from the themes and political context of Beckett’s short play Catastrophe and its relationship to Czech playwright Václav Havel.

The Battle of the Endgames Blue Raincoat (Ireland) and Wits’ End (Australia) present two very different productions of arguably Beckett’s greatest play. Set in a shelter on a cliff – outside, a physical wasteland; inside, a divided consciousness.