Samuel Beckett’s old school ties

Sean Doran wants to make Happy Days a ‘destination festival’, turning Enniskillen, where the playwright and novelist went to school, into a Mecca for his fans

Meditating on mortality: Klaus Maria Brandauer in Krapp’s Last Tape. Photographs: Das Letzte Band

Meditating on mortality: Klaus Maria Brandauer in Krapp’s Last Tape. Photographs: Das Letzte Band

Sat, Jun 28, 2014, 01:00

There are three events that Sean Doran recalls, over the course of a varied international career as an artistic director, when he thought he had finally gone too far.

The first happened precisely 10 years ago, when Doran, freshly appointed to run English National Opera (ENO), decided to take the company to the mucky fields of Glastonbury. “I knew it would work,” he says of ushering Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries on to the Pyramid stage on a Sunday morning. “But to everyone around me I was a barbarian.”

That’s a strange description for this genial, soft-spoken Derry-born man. “It was one of the most extraordinary moments in my life,” he says. “A silence descended upon the field, once it moved beyond Ride of the Valkyries. Always, always trust your audience.” He adds, “Of course, you can fall flat on your face if you take risks.”

It’s a high-wire act that he has become used to. When, some years before, he phoned Perth International Arts Festival to tell his staff he had found the centrepiece of his first festival programme – an 18-hour Chinese opera called The Peony Pavilion – he was welcomed back with an emergency meeting. “You start your persuasion then,” he says. “But the audience came to see it like nothing else. I wanted a statement for the first festival. It was a gift for me.”

Which brings us to his most recent, and apparently most unnerving, pause for thought: waiting, under a grey sky at 5.30am, for a boat from Enniskillen to Boa Island, where Adrian Dunbar would read Samuel Beckett’s final prose piece, Stirrings Still. “It’s kind of purgatorial,” he says of the event, his own brainchild. “You carry your own chair up the hill, and it had rained the night before, surrounded by ninth-century ruins . . . Going out, I thought, This is the stupidest thing ever.” Instead he was transfixed to hear a man read, with utter simplicity, from among the last of Beckett’s writings. “And the words held,” says Doran.

That was the inaugural year of Happy Days, the Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, which Doran began in 2012, and the Purgatorio Island Readings are now the first events to sell out. “Before doing it, of any festival in my entire life, this one weighed heaviest.”

How does somebody become an artistic director for hire, a position with no obvious career path? “It wasn’t quite accidental,” Doran says. Educated in Derry, at St Columb’s College, Doran studied music at the University of East Anglia, qualified as a clarinettist and conductor and spent the next six years in London, setting up a music company. He got involved in music criticism and travel writing, authoring the first Rough Guide to Ireland. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says.

Stopping in Derry, en route to Chile, at the age of 30, he was approached to run the Impact ’92 festival, which had reached a position of crisis, about six months before it was due to start. It was a baptism by fire. (“Much of my career has followed that sort of thing ever since,” he says.) But its possibilities were attractive. “I could bring the artists I admire, who I adore and who can do things better than me, to places where people would not otherwise have access to their work,” he says. “That set the ground in terms of my interests.”

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