Frank McNally on a Brexit-flavoured ‘Waiting for Godot’

Soft Border, Hard Beckett: An Irishman’s Diary

Antony Gormley’s ‘Tree  for Waiting for Godot’ will be exhibited in the Grand Yard at Castle Coole in Enniskillen as part of the Happy Days Festival. Photograph: antonygormley.com

Antony Gormley’s ‘Tree for Waiting for Godot’ will be exhibited in the Grand Yard at Castle Coole in Enniskillen as part of the Happy Days Festival. Photograph: antonygormley.com

 

The porousness of the Border has been much discussed in recent times, but it will be dramatically illustrated in coming days by a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot

What is described as a “rehearsed reading” of the play takes place, starting this week, on a hilltop at the frontier between Cavan and Fermanagh. And among the event’s many unusual aspects is that it will feature what could be described as an all-star karst.

Karst is the geological term for limestone landscape eroded over millennia into fissures, sinkholes, caves, and other cavities. The example under the stretch of Border in question is considered among the best on these islands, having produced the Marble Arch Caves and the Unesco Global Geopark, which now transcends the political boundary, above and below ground.

Local landmarks include the Shannon Pot, where according to mythology, Sionnan, a granddaughter of the sea god Manannán Mac Lir, once tried to eat forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, provoking the waters to submerge her and, in the process, create Ireland’s greatest river.  

The whole event lasts five hours. It may be a soft Border, but it’s hard Beckett

The tree of knowledge will not feature in Waiting for Godot. But as usual, a tree of no knowledge will.

In this case, the tramps are to assemble under the much-travelled Godot tree of British artist Antony Gormley, itself to be reassembled for the occasion. And another unusual aspect of the event is that the audiences will have done some tramping too. 

Enniskillen Castle houses two museums – Fermanagh County Museum and the Inniskillings Museum
"Those attending have to board a bus from Enniskillen Castle (above) at 8am, then walk for an hour up to the moorland setting, before retracing their steps in reverse afterwards."

This is no mere night at the theatre. For one thing, it will be morning. Those attending have to board a bus from Enniskillen Castle at 8am, then walk for an hour up to the moorland setting, before retracing their steps in reverse afterwards. The whole event lasts five hours. It may be a soft Border, but it’s hard Beckett.

This latest Godot is part of the Happy Days: International Beckett Festival, now in its sixth edition, which shares August with the somewhat newer Lughnasa Frielfest, dedicated to another famous Irish playwright and located further up the Brexit frontline, at venues in Derry and Donegal. 

The festivals have been combined under an umbrella called Arts Over Borders (the full programme is available at artsoverborders.com). And – speaking of umbrellas – outdoor productions are a common theme in both, so organisers may be hoping the long hot summer of 2018 has a few weeks left in it yet.  

Mind you, storms might not be inapt during the Frielfest’s scheduled series of readings from Homer’s Odyssey, which will break new ground in several respects later this month. 

Based on Emily Watson’s recent translation – the first in English by a woman – it features an all-female cast, another departure from historic norms. But the new ground will also include nine different beaches: the venues for the show.

Getting back to the Beckett Festival, which opens tomorrow, the excuse for having such a thing in and around Enniskillen is of course the time he spent there as a student, circa 1920-23, at Portora Royal School.  

"As recorded by Samuel Beckett's biographer Anthony Cronin (above), he would remember the Portora years 'as the last truly happy ones for a long time'."

That was an interesting period in his life and, it seems, uncharacteristically happy. Happy Days is an ironic title, in keeping with Beckett’s later philosophy. But as recorded by his biographer Anthony Cronin, he would remember the Portora years “as the last truly happy ones for a long time”.

They were interesting years in Irish life too. Beckett’s time in Enniskillen coincided with the original Brexit on this island, when what became the Republic began cutting links with the UK, something to which students at Portora – Protestants from all over Ireland – were generally opposed.

Beckett crossed the new Border a few years later for one of his first jobs, as a French teacher at Belfast’s Campbell College. 

As the wife of a subsequent headmaster put it, 'no invitation no matter how pressing' would induce him to return

That was the scene of a quip often relocated to the South, at the expense of Trinity College, where he had studied in the meantime. In fact it was the headmaster of Campbell who is said to have boasted once that his students were the “cream of Ulster”, to which a now unhappy Beckett responded: “Yes – rich and thick”.

His comparative contentment at Portora was not sufficient to lure him back there, however. According to Cronin, he “sedulously refused to have anything to do with the school in later life”. He was by contrast “oddly loyal” to Trinity, where he had been miserable. 

But his Brexit from Portora was irreversible. As the wife of a subsequent headmaster put it, “no invitation no matter how pressing” would induce him to return.

In a geological metaphor suggesting granite rather than karst, she added: “All approaches from the school in after years fell on stony ground”.    

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