Passing the time at Enniskillen’s Happy Days festival
Conversations turn Beckettian when this festival of all things tragicomic doesn’t turn out as planned. Could it be any other way?
Christian Mazzuchini as Vladimir and Noël Vergès as Estragon in Theatre NoNo’s Waiting for Godot
‘We’ve been waiting for someone to come, but nobody has turned up.” Were it not for the bright disposition of the speaker, a museum attendant, a visitor to one of the visual arts exhibitions during Happy Days might suspect that everyone in Enniskillen is following a Beckettian script. “Are you looking for the tree?” asks another. “It’s not here.” Nothing to be done.
At the opening weekend of this festival of all things Beckett, which is now in its third year, such dialogues of contradiction, dispossession and persistence became a mainstay; not a day passes without discovering that an event or an exhibition had either been mislabelled, relocated, cancelled, or, more appropriately, delayed.
There are one of two explanations for this: a run of moderately bad luck and inclement weather (one event is cancelled due to the flooding of the venue, the Marble Arch caves); or, further evidence that this accursed universe delivers nothing but petty torments, fruitless routines and eternally dashed hopes as we waste, painfully and ineluctably, towards the merciful embrace of the grave. Still, you have to laugh.
Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of a programme that includes two productions of the tragi-comedy Waiting for Godot. Marseille’s Theatre NoNo brings En Attendant Godot to the Ardhowen Theatre, while New York’s New Yiddish Rep is still performing Vartyn Af Godot in Portora Royal School (a happy accident; the show is relocated to Beckett’s alma mater when its original venue proves unsuitable).
These different versions of Godot represent the oldest and newest versions of Beckett’s masterpiece, respectively. The original text, written in French in the aftermath of the second World War, was first performed in 1953; the new Yiddish translation, by Shane Baker, emerged just last year.
Each show seems weighted towards different ends of the tragi-comic scale. Without making it explicit, New Yiddish Rep are informed by Beckett’s wartime experience as a member of the French Resistance, by echoes between Holocaust survivors and characters similarly disposed and wandering. “Who is more used to waiting than the Jews?” Yassur asks, good humouredly. “We’ve been waiting for 2,000 years for the Messiah.”
By contrast, Marion Coutris’s production for Theatre NoNo seems to be explicitly engaged with performance itself, and its toll. Gradually, through frayed ringmaster costumes, the tramps come to resemble exhausted entertainers in a fairground wasteland. Beckett’s French text is remarkably more permissive than his own English-language version (there is no moon, for a start) and Serge Noyelle’s design hovers between the concrete and abstract. Car tyres ground into dust make a gleaming black “country road”, while the tree hangs inverted from the rig, like the world has been turned upside down.
Sadly, but unavoidably, both performances are accompanied by surtitles of Beckett’s English text (a contractual necessity), so anyone whose French or Yiddish has turned rusty might have lost the nuances – of which there are a multitude. I pay special attention to Didi and Gogo’s battle of insults, which ends, witheringly, with the trump card, “Crritic”, yet doesn’t feature at all in the French version (perhaps because it was written before Beckett’s first experience with theatre reviews). In Baker’s careful and allusive text, it appears as a specific reference to the most pedantic of Talmudic researchers. It may be a play – to use Vivian Mercier’s ceaselessly burnished synopsis – in which nothing happens twice, but it can still happen with infinite variation.
A shortage of performance venues has encouraged Happy Days to seek novel alternatives, which accounts for some of the more pleasing idiosyncrasies of the programme. Boarding a boat at 7am, and looking through tear-streaked windows on to a placid grey Lough Erne, audiences for the Purgatorio island readings of Beckett’s prose are aware that they are making a self-mortifying pilgrimage. Reaching Tully Castle, two hours later, to hear Ian McElhinney read from Texts For Nothing in the bowels of the ruins, against the eerie sounds of dripping rainwater and grumbling stomachs, makes for a suitably austere and contemplative experience. “How are the intervals filled between these apparitions?” he begins. “Ah to know for sure, to know that this thing has no end, this thing, this thing, this farrago of silence and words . . . ” Does it cheapen Beckett that we so often describe the work of his many emulators as Beckettian? They seem to trace the edge of the void in tumbling words and silence, bites of levity and gravity, whereas his messages emanate right from the depths.
Places of worshipIn giving Beckett fans a destination, artistic director Sean Doran has also formed congregations of worshippers. This might be why so many events take place in churches, the most curious of which is at a secret location for a staging of Catastrophe. Beckett’s late short, here directed by Adrian Dunbar, was written for the then imprisoned Vaclav Havel. Although you can find politics in everything, they are most easily decoded here, as a tyrannical director (Frank McCusker) affiliated with a governing Party (“Step on it, I have a caucus”) manipulates a haggard performer, and, by extension, the audience. (The programme shores up this politicised Beckett with talks by the BBC’s John Simpson and the Marxist critic and theorist Terry Eagleton. ) Catastrophe, the first of the festival’s self-produced Beckett stagings, is twice delayed on my viewing, first by a box-office snafu and then a broken power generator, yet these are 10 resonant minutes worth waiting for.
In an electronic recital of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge at St Michael’s Church, and elegiac chamber pieces from Gavin Bryars in the Presbyterian Church and St Macartin’s Cathedral, the awesome acoustics of places of reverence provide for satisfyingly meditative experiences, and within them you may be tempted to search for Beckett everywhere: in the wry perseverance and solidarity of organisers and audience; in the severe faces of concentration among the young and old; in every disquieting revelation or contentedly cheap gag in his work. It’s oddly, endlessly consoling. “I can’t go on like this,” says Estragon, in every language, when things seem most unbearable. “That’s what you think,” says Vladimir, each and every time.
The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival continues until August 10. happy-days-enniskillen.com