Waiting for Beckett

Act One of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days opens with Winnie “embedded up to above her waist” in a mound. Act Two: Winnie is “embedded up to her neck”. Beckett is not famous for his expressions of happiness. To be “Beckettian” is to be bleak and bare.

Enniskillen, described by a local as “a backwater of a backwater”, is a border town in Northern Ireland that was bombed by the IRA on Remembrance Sunday in 1987. Like Oscar Wilde, Beckett was a pupil at Portora Royal School, which overlooks the town. We are used to Wagner and Bayreuth, Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon. Now Beckett and Enniskillen. That is the hope of Seán Doran, founder and artistic director of Happy Days, Enniskillen’s first International Beckett Festival.

I ask James Knowlson, Beckett’s authorised biographer, if the Nobel laureate would have wanted a festival in his honour. Beckett would have “run behind the Great Wall of China” before coming here, says Knowlson. But he would have been flattered.

Irish novelist Edna O’Brien opens proceedings in conversation with BBC journalist William Crawley. O’Brien is eloquent and self-deprecating. Liltingly, she paints Beckett as “a thing from eternity”; she talks of his “innocence” and how his writing is “steeped in feeling”. Was Beckett happy? “A happy person does not write.” The occasion has a haunting, reverent air. Beckett was “not invisible”, O’Brien remarks, “but something of him crept up on one.”

Indeed, Beckett’s ghost is everywhere. Knowlson and fellow biographer Antonia Fraser reminisce about their friend; actress Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s muse, reminisces on screen – “he was my dearest friend ...”

Irish fiddler Tommy Peoples out-Becketts all. He drones mellifluously about the past – friends dead, “good times, hectic times” – he plays and sings a bit. Mostly he listens to recordings of himself, like Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape: hands on knees, eyes closed, breathing in time with the notes – his notes of years ago – a mad, moving existential experience.

Novelist Will Self looks “Beckettian”. His intellectual protuberance and menacing drawl seem Beckettian. He discusses his new novel Umbrella and Beckett (up to a point). He hates similes – “I don’t think in them”. He then launches into a long simile about releasing Umbrella into the world, like a parent dropping his child at university, relinquishing control.

Novelist Will Self talks to Beckett's official biographer James Knowlson

Self’s healthy attitude is seldom associated with Beckett’s estate. Beckett policed his plays obsessively and his heirs have followed suit. Revise a line and find yourself in court. The issue is well-documented. There are two camps: those who believe interpretation can revitalise and enhance, and those who think it’s vandalism.

Irish actress Lisa Dwan has not vandalised Not I. Performing this monologue, a torrent of trauma, fear and fury, is, in Billie Whitelaw’s words, “like falling backwards into Hell”. For the 1973 production, Beckett drilled Whitelaw unstintingly. In turn, Whitelaw has “conducted” Dwan, bequeathing Beckett’s notes to her.

Her part is called “Mouth”, and a mouth is all we see. Eight feet up. The rest is blacked out. According to Dwan, Beckett wanted “the actor’s terror”. He gets it. “The scream is real,” she says. Beckett wanted it to go at the speed of thought – the words “swarming like ants” – and Dwan “goes like the clappers”. She is strapped to a harness, tied to a board, blindfolded, ears blocked. Her performance is eviscerating, mesmerising to the extent that her spotlit mouth appears to oscillate through the air even though it’s fixed.

Devoted fidelity to Beckett’s vision works here. But rabid possessiveness can convey an impression of paranoia: you wonder if the plays are intrinsically fragile; one lousy production of Endgame might kill it off. Of course they are not fragile. It can also convey an impression of arrogance: he’s fenced-off, perfect – province of an elite, territorial few. The public don’t “own” Beckett, like they “own” Shakespeare, although they should.

Director Seán Doran is seated “in both camps” but cites Robert Wilson’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape – the top billing at the festival – as proof of the hard line softening. If he is right, the estate deserves credit.

Wilson’s Krapp has shades of Japanese kabuki. Predecessors in the part – Patrick Magee, John Hurt, Harold Pinter – opted for a style more like naturalism. But Wilson’s Krapp is not wrong or invalid. He acts, directs and designs. White-face, clownish – dead, perhaps – Krapp skips and minces, poses, grimaces: mocking, human, tragic. It’s stylish and very powerful.

In the foyer afterwards, eminent academics express stuffy outrage. One, declining to be named, calls it “alienating and pretentious: a play by Robert Wilson”. Others are thrilled. Whichever camp you sit in, this is brave programming. Choosing instead a bog-standard “backwater” Waiting for Godot might have sunk the whole thing.

Beckett for children sounds like a punishment. Act Without Words – eight pages of stage directions, followed to the hilt by Theatre Clastic – is now a beautiful puppet show. It is about hope, resourcefulness and thwarted desire: sad, funny and faintly sinister. I watch, hunting for oblique meanings, while dozens of little children follow the plot, laugh, shout and commentate. The production is excellent. Beckett is not undermined or sanitised; yet his bleak, impenetrable work is enjoyed by five-year-olds. Happy Days is democratising Beckett.

Elsewhere, five-year-olds (and over) take in artwork, comedy, concerts and even sport associated with Beckett. For this is more than just a multi-arts festival, just as Beckett was more than just an artist. Cycling, rowing, rugby, cricket – I want to bat for the critics in the “Artists v Critics” match, but the pitch is waterlogged.

Beyond Bayreuth and Stratford, founders also hope that Happy Days will be the new Edinburgh. It will never be like Edinburgh, I suggest, and Doran refines the point: the Edinburgh Festival was started two years after the second world war with a brief to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”, and to unite people from across the world.

In Enniskillen, almost every local I speak to wants to talk about the bombing; memories of conflict and sectarian divide are raw. This weekend concerts are programmed inside the churches, forcing thresholds to be crossed: Catholics go inside St Macartin’s and Protestants go inside St Michael’s, perhaps for the first time. Doran has not cast himself as a Great Healer but he does hope that uniting people for “a celebration” like this might help somehow.

The atmosphere is good and so is the art. “It’s not like a first festival,” says Doran. “It’s a third or fourth.” Dubliners are impressed: normally they would never dream of coming here, they say. Venues are full and chronic hiccups are scarce. Most events start late but you adapt. Few locals buy tickets but think it’s good for Enniskillen all the same.

If Edna O’Brien et al turn up next year, this festival will be worth attending. If it unites new artists and new audiences “for the flowering of the human spirit” – with Beckett as benign guardian – attendance will be essential. My last event is Schubert’s Winterreise, sung (magnificently) by Ian Bostridge. Winterreise, which consists of 24 songs about estrangement and isolation, was Beckett’s favourite piece of music. Doran promises to stage it at every festival to come. Funds for 2013 are not yet agreed but they should be. Happy days.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.