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

 

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.


Inferno
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.


Purgatorio
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.

The only sounds emanate from grazing cattle, who take little notice of the surreal scene unfolding. Perched in a niche in the church’s outer wall, poet, musician and comedian John Hegley treats us to an engaging performance and reading, during which Beckett’s beautiful 1950 translation of Apollinaire’s poem Zone is punctuated by plaintive mandolin segments.


Waiting for Godot
A dingy former cinema is now Enniskillen’s Unionist Hall (renamed La Salle de l’Union for the occasion). Decked with glitter and sparkle after the previous night’s cabaret show, it provides an off-piste venue for the first read-through of an Irish/Aboriginal production, which Doran envisages will be premiered at next year’s Happy Days festival, prior to an international tour.

While directors Conall Morrison and Kyle Morrison, the latter of whom comes from an Aboriginal tribal background, have had some previous contact, this morning encounter is the first for the actors.

Full marks for courage, then, in allowing the public to witness their earliest attempts on the iconic text, which veteran actor Ernie Dingo has never come across in his long career.

Initially taken aback by the Irish director’s relaxed preference for allowing the words to be heard through the shifting sands of the play, unencumbered by stage directions, by the end Dingo clearly relishes hearing his own voice as Vladimir emerge and blend with those of his Irish colleagues, Mark Lambert (Pozzo) and Aaron Monaghan (Lucky).


Endgame
Thrilling though it has been to hear the voice of Beckett ringing out in Italian, French and Portuguese, two Irish companies prove yet again that, for all his years of living in Paris and writing in French, you cannot take Ireland out of the man.

Blue Raincoat’s dust-coloured production of arguably his finest play rings out with suppressed anger and thinly disguised frustration. While outside his airless cell a post-apocalyptic world disintegrates, Ciaran McCauley’s florid, bloated Hamm strains vainly against infirmity, immobility and life in general. He vents his cruelty on John Carty’s patient Clov, who, nevertheless, manages to convey the impression that escape may just be possible some day.

With Peter Davey as Nagg and Cora Fenton as Nell, their muscular yet harmonious delivery of Beckett’s cadences and rhythms is a pleasure.


Ethica
The six young players of Sugarglass Theatre take on the big guns in Ethica, a respectful, thoughtfully constructed montage of four short plays, performed in total and semi-darkness.

Ellen Patterson, Siobhán Cullen and Ellen Flynn make an elegant trio of old friends in the stealthy, conspiratorial Come and Go. A rare and chilling opportunity is offered to witness Catastrophe, dedicated by Beckett to Vaclav Havel during the term of his imprisonment, while What Where, his final work for the theatre, resounds with the still-pressing issues of torture and state violence.


2nd Act
An exquisitely sweet, sophisticated feat of physical theatre from the Paris-based Company Dos à Deux.

This original piece, beautifully designed, scored and presented, revolves around the theme of waiting. Two extraordinary performers, Clément Chaboche and Guillaume Le Pape, play a pair of aimless vagabonds, passing the time along an empty country road, against a parched landscape dominated by a bare-branched tree.

Sound familiar? Maybe, but what follows is a complex, high-energy, wordless narration, forged by a remarkable collective imagination. The result is poignant, gleeful, spiteful, surprising, tender and comic, eliciting gasps of wonder and peals of laughter from an audience that crosses generations. Simply brilliant.

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