Sean Doran talks to Jane Coyle about what festival goers can expect from this year’s Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival
The island town of Enniskillen in the heart of the beautiful Fermanagh lakelands earlier this year played host to the G8 summit. While local people may harbour mixed feelings about the long-term effects of that high profile gathering on the life and economy of their county, there is general joy at the prospect of the return of another major event, which has put this peaceful, western corner of Northern Ireland firmly on the map as a centre of cultural excellence.
Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival (August 22-26) is the world’s biggest celebration of the work of Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett – and of work inspired by him. In 2012, its inaugural year, it far exceeded expectations in terms of visitor numbers, national and international media coverage, community involvement and artistic brilliance. Among the highlights was a very rare appearance by the innovative director/actor Robert Wilson in the title role of Krapp’s Last Tape. Since their first meeting in the early 1970s, Beckett and Wilson had forged a close mutual admiration. Indeed, it was Beckett himself who suggested that Wilson might consider focusing his unique visual imagination onto some of his work. In an interview last year, Wilson maintained that playing Krapp had helped him to become a better director.
The founder and artistic director of Happy Days is Sean Doran, a former professional musician from Derry, who, in his wide-ranging programming career – at IMPACT ‘92, Belfast Festival at Queen’s, UK Year of Literature and Writing, Perth International Arts Festival – has acquired a reputation as something of a maverick. He admits that playing safe is not for him, that his natural instinct is for striking out into virgin territory and breaking taboos.
Speaking recently at the All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference in his home town – currently the UK City of Culture – he acknowledged the criticism directed towards him by the opera world, when, as chief executive and artistic director of English National Opera, he took the company to the Glastonbury Festival, where they gave a rousing performance of Act III of The Valkyrie, accompanied by a full orchestra. He also recalled inviting the iconic dance-maker Merce Cunningham to create a ground-breaking installation on an Australian beach and gleefully recounted his memory of a man emerging from the sea and walking in and out of the public showers, completely oblivious to the breathtaking piece of high art unfolding around him.
“People know what they’re getting when they appoint me,” he grins. “I do tend to be something of a loner in the world in which I work. But I would say that success frightens me more than failure. It’s easy to fill spaces with familiar things.
“These days what really interests me is the creation of destination festivals. Happy Days is an example of an idea that is so blindingly obvious it’s surprising it hasn’t been done before. We have Shakespeare and Stratford, Mozart and Salzburg… why not Beckett and Enniskillen? It’s absolutely the perfect place.”
Beckett is, of course, most frequently associated with Paris, where he spent most of his adult life, and also with Dublin, where he was born and studied at Trinity College. But what is less known is that he spent several formative years at a prestigious boys‘ boarding school – Portora Royal School – in Enniskillen, where Oscar Wilde had also been a pupil.
I would say that success frightens me more than failure. It’s easy to fill spaces with familiar thingsSean Doran
“The deep, layered history of Fermanagh, its understated sense of mystery, its muted colour palette are all incredibly Beckettian,” says Doran. “There are direct references to its landscape in his work – like the‘the upper lake’ and the ‘punt in the reeds’in the famous dream sequence from Krapp’s Last Tape, which immediately conjures up a picture of Upper Lough Erne in one of his most evocative images.
“In conceiving this festival, my motivation was the man himself, who was a revolutionary. After leaving ENO, I took a year out and plunged into reading Beckett. Bit by bit, I became struck not only by the power of his verbal genius but by the way in which he influenced and was influenced by so many other genres – classical music, the visual arts, comedy, dance.”
This year’s festival – which runs from 22 to 26 August – homes in on Beckett’s short plays and prose and will include four international installations, as well as a total of 17 UK and Irish premieres and 13 world premieres.
True to Doran’s form, there may be little in the packed programme that is immediately familiar but there is plenty to excite and tantalise, as well as a handful of intriguing site-specific events. Among the familiar names are Miranda Richardson, Harriet Walter, Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw, Diana Quick, Adrian Dunbar, Margaret Drabble, Clive James and Neil Pearson, who will take part in all manner of readings, performances and talks.
But proceedings will be dominated by a somewhat unlikely figure, a literary giant from centuries past.
“This will be a celebration of Beckett, which goes far beyond the usual treatment of his work,” says Doran. “This year, our inspiration is the Italian medieval poet Dante Alighieri, whose Divine Comedy had a massive effect on Beckett. It was his favourite literary work, much referenced in his own writing. It has given shape to what I believe will be an enticing programme, containing someextraordinary new events and experiences.”
In the run-up to the festival, there is much talk about Doran’s creation of three remarkable Dante-themed events. The mysterious watery underworld of the Marble Arch Caves is the setting for Inferno, in which audiences will be led deep underground among the dripping ice, stalactites, stalagmites and frozen flow-pots of this strange, primaeval environment. On boats and on foot, they will process from a pitch-dark performance of Not I through a babbling soundscape of the Cantos to a performance of Dido’s Lament, sung live at Journey’s End by mezzo soprano Ruby Philogene.
Early risers will catch dawn breaking over the lakelands when they arrive at the embarkation point for Purgatorio and board a cruiser to cross what Doran calls “… the purgatorial waters of Lough Erne.” White Island, with its pre-Christian stone figures, the monastic isles of Devenish and Inishmacsaint and thickly wooded Paris Island are the destinations for special readings of Beckett’s short prose.
And the Dante-esque triple bill is completed by Paradiso, a 2013 Edinburgh Fringe event, in which a specially chartered plane will whisk passengers through the clouds and across the Irish Sea for a 24-hour visit to Happy Days.
On the performing arts bill will be UK and Irish dance and drama premieres by companies from Finland and France, Ireland and Portugal, as well as the first public reading and rehearsal of a new Aboriginal/Irish production of Waiting for Godot, due to be premiered at Happy Days in 2014. The four Irish and Australian actors will meet on stage here for the first time, together with the directors from the two countries – Kyle Morrison (Act I) and Conall Morrison (Act II). Audiences will be free to come and go at any time during the three-hour rehearsal period.
Whether or not the Bank Holiday sun shines on Enniskillen, Happy Days offers much in prospect to lighten the darkness, gladden the heart and lift the spirits. Oh, les beaux jours!
Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival (August 22-26). Box office: 028 6632 5000