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The headmaster of Portora Royal School declares that Samuel Beckett baited a weakling teacher in the hall where we’re sipping tea. It’s the meet-and-greet of Happy Days, Enniskillen’s Beckett festival, and I relish the great writer’s mischief. Wee Sam was himself baited at Portora – until he “nearly killed” the offending boy.
No one baits Beckett now. No one dares. His heirs protect his work – his genius – with priest-like zeal (tweak a stage direction and expect to have your show cancelled) and scholars endorse their vigilance: why meddle with perfection? The 1969 Nobel laureate, who died in 1989, is to be revered, like some austere god.
Director Seán Doran wants to reconstruct this forbidding image. He wants Happy Days to be accessible; he wants a drop of Beckett mischief. And he says he wants Enniskillen to become Beckett’s Bayreuth. Two excellent ambitions.
How to make Beckett accessible? Do him in surprising places, of course.
Miranda Richardson reads a Beckett tale, with intimate, feline precision, inside a Masonic lodge.
Neil Pearson reads “Dante and the Lobster” in the bowels of Castle Coole. This early story includes one of the finest and funniest descriptions of a man making toast ever written and Pearson is up to the task.
One night, I’m locked up in the police station while Ian McElhinney reads two stories in a dense silence.
One dawn, I sail up Lough Erne, to an old monastic site – Devenish Island – where Adrian Dunbar (The Crying Game), reads from Krapp’s Last Tape. Why here? No reason, except that it’s beautiful. He reads with such understated feeling that I long to see him do the part in full.
Act Without Words II, performed underneath a busy road, is less beautiful in every way. Bits are added, bits are cut and the characters appear as junkies, which was never Beckett’s intention. It is indulgently long – until the final seconds, when something magical occurs.
The Marble Arch Caves, a natural wonder a few miles out of town, is the grandest “stage” of Happy Days. Deep in the rocks, Lisa Dwan performs Not I – and on we go, passing people spouting Dante’s Inferno, until we come to Ruby Philogene, who sings “Amazing Grace”. Each component is quite spectacular but it’s very slow, with health and safety weighing in. And I’m not certain that stalactites help Not I. Dwan’s performance is eviscerating without them. Adding caves is a gimmick.
Elsewhere, venues are used more subtly. The IRA bombed Enniskillen in 1987 and memories of sectarian divide haunt the town. It is no small thing, therefore, for Protestants to listen to Messiaen in St Michael’s and for Catholics to watch clowns inside a Unionist Hall. (Or, for that matter, for anyone to hear Frank Skinner going on about how he doesn’t “know anything about Beckett” inside a Methodist church.) Such thresholds would not usually be crossed. Doran is quietly aware of this and justly proud.
But it’s not all feel-good at Happy Days. Espaço das Aguncheiras, a Portuguese company, have “tried to highlight Beckett’s subtler, ironic side” in their staging of five short plays (Footfalls, Rockaby and three others). They do no such thing. Their hour is thick with gloom and their work impossible to follow. Is Beckett to blame? Even a bit? The sages are adamant that these works – his leanest – represent Beckett at his best.
Endgame is no tonic for depression. To watch two in a row is a bit like masochism. Off I go. The first, by an Australian company called Wits’ End, includes a Buster Keaton film and Bach’s Chaconne. Keaton and Bach are good, but neither has any place here. Hamm is also a problem. On the page, he is a vicious, egotistical ball of fire. Resting back in his chair, Peter Houghton gives us thespian tics and tricks – warm water in place of flames.
For the second Endgame, I go back to Portora, where Beckett’s ghost is still ragging his teachers. This version, by Blue Raincoat, is quite good. Hamm (Ciaran McCauley) strains his voice on almost every line but Nell’s death inside her ashbin is poignant.
The best Beckettian piece is not, in fact, by Beckett. It is Wanha, a dance by Tero Saarinen, a Finnish company. It’s the quirky tale of two men in bowler hats and suits growing old together. Comic, sad and scary, it feels like a distant cousin of Waiting for Godot. Wanha elicits the loudest cheers of the festival.
Between shows, I visit exhibitions, concerts and a video installation by Robert Wilson of Winona Ryder as Winnie in Happy Days. Buried up to her neck and stringently silent throughout, Ryder “channels” Winnie (apparently). It gets light and it gets dark. Ryder moves her head 90 degrees and tilts it up and down. She stares with defiance. It’s oddly beautiful.
But what of Beckett’s Bayreuth? For 2013 the festival commissioned a lecture by Tariq Ali and a Samuel Beckett chess set by sculptor Alan Milligan – and no major new production of any kind. This is because of funding, says Doran, which might be partly true. But it’s also down to him. This is a varied, vibrant and accessible programme, set in a very hospitable town. Audiences are conspicuously happy. But no amount of celebrity talks, comedians or classical concerts, however good, will make Happy Days a serious artistic force. And it will not begin to compare with Wagner’s Bayreuth until the best practitioners are commissioned to stage Beckett’s work in new productions. All else is dressing.