Five days in Beckett Town: the best and the boldest of the Happy Days festival
A huge number of productions and premieres were stuffed into the Enniskillen festival, many of them performed in intriguing locations
Ciaran McCauley and John Carty in Blue Raincoat’s Endgame
Dos à Deux’s 2nd Act
The round tower of Devenish, the picturesque site for Purgatorio
Over the weekend, the town of Enniskillen pulled out all the stops for the immersive experience that is the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival. The festival, dedicated to the work, the life and creative influence of Samuel Beckett, has in its second year delivered a programme that packs a huge number of productions and premieres into just five days.
Director and driving force Seán Doran – described by one festival-goer as “a mad idealist” – has curated the vast sweep of this thrilling event around a number of thematic paths.
Doran describes his programming style as architectural and geometric, which makes the process sound clinical and pre-ordained. Nothing could be further from the truth. Without his forensic, highly imaginative thinking, a festival whose foundations this year are a combination of Dante, chess, short prose, short plays and comedy – many of them performed in intriguing and unlikely locations – could turn out to be a topsy-turvy affair.
“We are all born mad; some remain so,” famously remarked Beckett, whom one suspects would have relished joining the little knots of people promenading around Enniksillen – colourfully rebranded, for five days, as Beckett Town – comparing notes on what they have seen, what they are going to and what they have, regrettably, been unable to fit in.
Beckett loved chess; a beautiful, specially commissioned large-scale bronze and timber set, into which sculptor Alan Milligan has worked familiar characters and props from the plays, sat in the Diamond, its commanding presence attracting passing spectators and players of all ages and experience.
Dante was both Beckett’s favourite writer and his literary mentor, and Divine Comedy provided the dramatic inspiration for some unforgettable one-off experiences. Miranda Richardson, Fiona Shaw, Diana Quick, Adrian Dunbar and Harriet Walter were among the distinguished names who breathed new life into Beckett’s somewhat neglected short prose in the Words Without Acts section of the programme.
With so much to relish, everyone will have come away from Happy Days with his or her own individual sampler. Here are this writer’s highlights.
The experience begins at twilight with a fairy-lit descent through a steep wooded glen awash with rushing streams. At the cathedral-like entrance to the Marble Arch Caves, silent boats glide through limpid waters to the point where three subterranean rivers meet. There, the Italian actress Chicca Minini emerges from the darkness for an unconventional performance of Not I. Under torchlight operated by a second figure – Beckett’s Observer – her jabbering mouth spits, growls and hollers, the trauma and agony of its owner’s loveless life transcending the language barrier.
A walk through massive, grotesque rock formations gives the impression of being trapped inside the skeleton of a giant creature, and this vision of hell is enhanced by the disorientating cacophony of voices reading, in a variety of languages, Dante’s 33 Cantos. The eventual arrival at Journey’s End is signalled by the glorious sound of mezzo soprano Ruby Philogene singing Dido’s Lament, soothing our ascent back into the real world.
Rising before dawn is rewarded by the Dante-esque spectacle of sunrise over Lower Lough Erne. Fortified by on-board tea and toast, a group of hardy adventurers set sail through the lough’s archipelago of wooded islands, our destination White Island, two hours away.
Chugging past the famous round tower of Devenish, the clusters of swans around Long Island and the G8 hideaway of the Lough Erne Resort, we eventually tie up at the jetty and trudge up a damp, reedy hill to the ruined 12th-century church, observed beadily by its eight mysterious stone figures, which have kept watch for more than a thousand years.