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
Endgame by Wits’ End, one of two productions of the play at the festival
Seán Doran: ‘Of all the festivals I have done in my life, this is the one I have feared the most’
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.”