Celebrating Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel, Arts Over Borders presents site-specific events in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Jane Coyle discovers how they defy and embrace the concept of borders as their political relevance becomes ever more timely
On Boa Island, a long splinter of land in the Fermanagh lakelands, stands an ancient, weathered, two-faced stone figure. It is the so-called Janus statue, reminiscent of the god of past and future, of time itself. It looks simultaneously south towards the north (Northern Ireland) and north towards the south (the Republic of Ireland).
Such are the political, geographic, economic and cultural complexities of the meandering, semi-invisible border between the two jurisdictions that its role and future status within and outside the European Union are proving a massive stumbling block to the Brexit negotiations.
Arts Over Borders is a pair of festivals located in the borderlands of Fermanagh and Derry/Donegal and dedicated to two great Irish writers – Samuel Beckett and Brian Friel – who had deep personal connections with each respective area.
Events weave in and out and across the border like an intellectually and logistically challenging maze. This curatorial programming approach has been forged by the partnership of Sean Doran and Liam Browne, both Derry-born and bred, who first came together 26 years ago when working on the ground-breaking Impact 92 festival in their home city.
“The motivation behind our new festival model, the bio-festival, began with the founding of the Beckett Festival in Enniskillen in 2012,” explains Doran.
“It was always as much socio-political as artistic. Our intention was to birth the first international multi-arts festival in Northern Ireland since the founding of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s in 1962 as a bringing together, post-conflict, of different cultures and countries, local communities and international visitors, all in the name of the arts. It parallels the great festivals of Europe – Edinburgh, Salzburg and Avignon – which were founded after the First and Second World Wars.”
The first Lughnasa FrielFest in 2015 was, almost by definition, Ireland’s first cross-border annual arts festival, by virtue of the fact that Brian Friel had lived half his life in Northern Ireland and half in the Republic of Ireland. Early in his writing career he admitted to getting himself regularly “involved in stupid controversies about the border”.
With Brexit looming, Doran and Browne decided to take the cross-border notion a step further and intertwine the two festivals across seven counties – three in the Republic of Ireland and four in Northern Ireland – taking audiences back and forth across the border for different events.
Some site-specific projects staged right on the border were directly inspired by the Brexit crisis. Purgatorio: Walking for Waiting for Godot comprised performed readings by a set of Northern Irish actors one weekend and a troupe from Dublin the next. They gathered around Antony Gormley’s Tree for Waiting for Godot up on the mountain bog of the UNESCO Global Geopark, the world’s first transnational geopark shared by counties Cavan and Fermanagh. The audience walked to the performance space and was seated on each side of the border.
“We now feel we truly inhabit this liminal borderland space, which provides an exciting source for our curatorial imagination,” says Browne.
“Audiences reacted to this style of presentation in a way they never had previously. The scenography and moment combined to create truly memorable site-specific artistic interventions, enough to encourage us to have this (Godot) event as an annually recurring attraction going forward.”
The Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival utilises the border as an avenue along which Beckett’s work emerges, in many and varied forms and locations. It takes in dawn voyages across Lough Erne to the island of Devenish; the four monologues of Faith Healer performed in church halls and a ballroom in rural Donegal; A Piece of Monologue, Beckett’s soliloquy on the brevity of life and the proximity of death, intoned 50 metres underground in the dead of night.
“Even the word ‘border’, when uttered, provokes a shudder that can bring you to a halt,” says Doran. “The very act of setting up the continuous necessity for audiences to keep travelling across the border to attend an event, was, on the one hand, an act of defiance by Arts Over Borders to the Brexit-darkening clouds and, on the other, a passing of the baton to the audiences, giving them an acute literal experience of what it is like when there is no hard border laid down to block their way.”
He continues: “Alongside journeying to an event comes the experience of journeying within an event, by bus, boat and communal walking, where new conversations and relationships happen naturally between people, neighbours, foreigners, different cultures and different age groups and outlooks. Important borders are thus being crossed within the festival experience.”
A border of a different variety is crossed en route to the mystery location for Kabosh’s production of Beckett’s last play What Where. A rickety bus heads out of Enniskillen, with German lieder playing on board. It rattles through leafy lanes into the world of the Anglo-Irish landowning classes, to the great 19th-century house and estate of Colebrooke, family seat of Viscount Brookeborough. Inside a corrugated metal barn, four figures in white overalls respond like automatons to a disembodied voice declaring: “We are the last five.”
1. Arts Over Borders has developed a new multi-arts festival model, the ‘bio-festival’, inspired by the vision of a single artist and curated with a strong sense of place in border communities and landscapes. In six years, it has presented festivals dedicated to Samuel Beckett, Brian Friel and Oscar Wilde.
2. Events take place from dawn to dusk – and at night – in caves, lakes, beaches, underground channels, islands, village halls, city walls, an old cinema, a ballroom, an abandoned farmstead, a stately home, a barn, a former riding arena and a functioning police station.
4. Artist honorary patrons include director/performer Robert Wilson; actors Fiona Shaw, Adrian Dunbar and Roma Downey; dancer/choreographer Ohad Naharin; composers Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass; poets Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin; novelists John Banville and Eimear McBride.
5. Underlining the historical conundrum of the Irish border, the festivals span six of the nine counties that make up the ancient province of Ulster: Antrim, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Fermanagh and Tyrone. Two (Donegal and Cavan) are in the Republic of Ireland and four are in Northern Ireland.
6. Arts Over Borders’ long-term vision is the establishment of the Irish border as a binding agent rather than a divider and its designation – in the form of the Northern Literary Lands – as a UNESCO Region of Literature, reflecting the extraordinary foundational layer of distinguished writers, including three Nobel laureates in 11 rural counties.
The guiding light of this year’s Lughnasa FrielFest is Homer, whose work Friel loved and admired. Dramatic readings of the Odyssey, Homer’s great epic of voyage, shipwreck and homecoming were staged under canvas across nine beaches in Northern Ireland and the Republic, read by Maxine Peake, Frances Barber and Imogen Stubbs.
Meanwhile, the Iliad, the story of the 10-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek kingdoms, is intoned on Derry’s ancient walls. The Odyssey is to Donegal, the county with Ireland’s longest coastline, as the Iliad, the original epic, is to Derry, the city with the longest siege in British and Irish history.
On a windswept Magilligan Strand, Stubbs injects thrilling drama into the gory killing spree that is Book 22 of the Odyssey, while waves lap softly on to the sand and the ferry connecting County Derry with Friel’s home and burial place in County Donegal chugs across Lough Foyle.
With the pipes and drums of the annual Apprentice Boys of Derry parade thundering through the streets, actor and classicist Niall Cusack ascended the city walls to deliver rousing readings from the Iliad, in English and Greek. Here is real life historical drama – the Siege of Troy meets the Siege of Derry. The Brexit debate springs into action, with Union Jacks and Ulster flags waved along the parade route while, in the republican Bogside below the walls, EU flags and Irish tricolours flutter over a street party and traditional music concert.
“Our hope is that Arts Over Borders can create a kind of communality so that the border is turned into something that unites people, not divides them,” says Browne. “In the context of the Irish border the arts can help to demonstrate what is already there but perhaps taken for granted – the ease of movement, the interaction between communities and cultures – shining a light on what is best in and about the region.”
Festivals: Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival and Lughnasa FrielFest
Co-directors: Sean Doran, Liam Browne
Founded: 2012 (Beckett); 2015 (Friel)
Dates: August 1-19, 2018
Employees: Full time 0; seasonal 12
Locations: 41 site-specific venues; three theatre venues
Participating artists: 93
Shows: 76, plus three talks
Audience figures (2018): 33,000 (c. 3,000 tickets sold + c. 30,000 viewing free exhibits)
Countries represented: 7
Total turnover/budget: £300,000, of which ticket sales £40,000
Main funders/sponsors: Tourism Northern Ireland, £70,000; TS Eliot Foundation, £60,000; Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, €35,000 (£32,000); Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, £35,000; Derry City and Strabane District Council, £16,122; Donegal County Council, €10,000 (£9,000); private donations, £38,000
Key contact: Sean Doran, firstname.lastname@example.org