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Happy Days: Enniskillen Samuel Beckett Festival 2014
Ian Maleney , August 17th, 2014 17:22

Ian Maleney heads to the Northern-Irish town of Enniskillen for the third instalment of its somewhat disparate but nonetheless intriguing Samuel Beckett festival, Happy Days

Enniskillen is the largest town in Fermanagh, a county that sits just on the smaller side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is a town strung out along a small, hill-ridden island that separates the upper and lower sections of Lough Erne. The bus that brought us there crossed the bridge beside Enniskillen castle, which was established sometime around the start of the 15th century by Hugh “the Hospitable” Maguire. An imposing mass of stone and slate, the castle marks the focal point for a bloody history that continues almost right up to the current day - a history betrayed by the name of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, a British Army Regiment that took their moniker from an old anglicised version of the original Inis Ceithleann, and who called the castle home. It seems to me now that the pun-worthy slippage between the two languages, both ironic and violently tragic, would most likely have appealed to the man we’re here to celebrate: Samuel Beckett.

To introduce the occasion properly, this is the third Happy Days Enniskillen International Samuel Beckett Festival. Beckett’s connection to the town is somewhat tenuous: As a teenager, Beckett attended Portora Royal School, located on a hill about half a mile west of the castle. For the period of this festival, the writer’s alma mater serves as a venue for a production of his most famous work, Waiting For Godot, in Yiddish. The school was a last minute replacement when the original venue fell through.

Happy Days takes place, rather awkwardly, over the space of two consecutive weekends. While Coachella can happily replicate itself exactly for the second weekend, Happy Days cannot. Some things only happen once, some take place on the first weekend, some on the second, and so on. Choosing which days to come for is tough as there is simply no way to get a solid overview of the festival as a whole. Perhaps (Beckett’s favourite word, according to Terry Eagleton), this is entirely the point; why yearn for a false sense of completeness or totality, when all that’s possible is a bitty, fragmented, conflicted experience? Why not embrace the utter contingency of truly being there?

Because we’re not Beckett characters and we do have to make some decisions, we plump for the first weekend. We arrive shortly after noon on the Saturday and, in a frankly gauche bit of pathetic fallacy, it is pissing rain. Just our luck. Struggling into the wind, we trek across town towards our hotel, where we are told our room is not quite ready yet: A pattern starts to assert itself. Back into the rain, back across town, to the Cathedral Hall, where we’re hoping to catch the installation of Steve McQueen’s Deadpan, which went some way towards winning him the Turner Prize back in 1999. We’re told at the door that there’s a problem with the projector and we should come back in about twenty minutes. The pattern grows stronger.

In any case, the projector is soon fixed and the show is back up and running. The silent five-minute film plays on a loop, taking over one wall of a small, dark room. McQueen stands behind a house, the rear facade of which falls on top of him. As in the Buster Keaton sketch it echoes, McQueen remains unharmed thanks to the placement of an missing window. We see this “lucky” escape replayed from every angle, and the artist never moves even as the house crashes down around him. Keaton was Beckett’s favourite actor, eventually starring in the writer’s only film, FILM. Less concretely, we are returned to the idea of contingency; if Keaton/McQueen are standing anywhere but exactly where they are standing, they would be dead. Each is saved by an absence of something; a nothingness. Such are the whisker-margins by which life goes on. But why is the house falling on them anyway? What sort of house is that? We get no explanation. In the silence of the film, all we get is the action at hand, and the non-reaction of the artist, who can’t even muster the will to be scared, or thankful to be alive.

Another boot back across town brings us to South West College, where the festival’s series of talks are taking place. The Writers And Talks series (WAT for short) happen in the college’s Central Hall, a renovated version of the old County Jail, now buried at the back of a maze of anaemic, academic corridors. Thanks to the broken projector, we’re a little late for our first talk and the halls are empty but for that uncanny anxiety that pervades vacant institutions; our footsteps echo against the closed doors. Inside the Central Hall, Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Foundation, Patricia Lent, former dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and musician Mell Mercier are discussing Cage’s work, Roaratorio: An Irish Circus On Finnegan’s Wake. Originally composed in 1979 as a “means of translating a book into a performance without actors”, the work brought several of the leading Irish traditional musicians of the time - including Mercier and his father, alongside Joe Heaney, Seamus Ennis, Paddy Glackin and Matt Molloy - together with Cage, and later with Cunningham and his dancers, in a grand experiment celebrating Joyce’s final work.

The connection between Joyce and Beckett is a theme explored throughout the festival, and so Roaratorio was installed first as a sound installation in the Marble Arch Caves (probably Fermanagh’s biggest tourist attraction) and on the second weekend presented with dancers, also in the caves. Sadly, with the caves only accessible by boat, the constant rain flooded the entrance and made the whole area unsafe for both performers and audience, meaning the installation was cancelled both nights we were there. (Given the caves are over twelve miles from the town and we were on foot, there was some confusion as to how we might get there, but that was a challenge we didn’t in the end have to overcome. Still, it’s something the festival ought to consider for future events; not everyone drives.)

There was some consolation however in the quality of the “Circus on John & Merce” taking place back in the Central Hall. All three of the people on stage, who are here to oversee the installation in the caves, are evidently full of passion, knowledge and insight into the work of both men. All three balanced reminiscing about the original presentation of Roaratorio, which can never be replicated, with strong opinions about how that work and others ought to be kept alive, as well as deftly handling questions on indeterminacy, chance operations and zen philosophy - subjects which can often seem to confusing, esoteric or arbitrary. Sometimes it feels quite rare to leave a “discussion” at any festival feeling more interested in and energised about the topic at hand, but this was a genuinely excellent and inspiring chat.

Later in the evening we nab the last two seats on a bus to who knows where to see a production of Beckett’s one-act play, Catastrophe, as directed by Adrian Dunbar. On the bus, we’re sworn to secrecy about the play’s location, but it is stunning and extremely well suited to the work. The production is as sharp and cold as the writing and superbly well delivered. There’s not an inch of fat on any of it and, as our first direct engagement with Beckett’s own work at the festival, set a high standard for whatever was to follow.

Ireland doesn’t really have super-star academics at all, but I suppose Declan Kiberd is as close as it comes. He is due in the Central Hall at 7pm to deliver a lecture on “Becket After Joyce”, but the resulting hour or so of rambling incoherence doesn’t live up to its billing. Kiberd pretty swiftly moves on from the direct Joyce connection to focus on what he admits to be the subject of a book he’s working on; spirituality in Beckett’s work. This gloriously vague concept never becomes more than an outline as Kiberd projects all sorts of possible influences into the Beckett oeuvre. The famine, both world wars, the holocaust, protestant anxiety, catholic guilt - all poked and twisted until they fit the picture and then overlaid with a scattering of quotes from other writers, just to prop it all up. Never does this web congeal into anything approaching a solid thesis, never mind insight, and we duck out before the Q&A can start. Shoe-horning inescapable world events and grand, malleable concepts like “spirituality” into an “interpretation” of an artist’s work (“what is Beckett really saying here?”) is some undergrad-level academic bluffing. Hopefully Kiberd will take some time before finishing that book.

The following day, Terry Eagleton takes a trip down a similar road, replacing “spiritual Beckett” with “political Beckett”, but, whether through charm or just more clear-headed organisation, carries it off far more successfully. Again little of it felt particularly insightful, but the focus on the concrete reality of Beckett’s political actions rather than projection a series of potential “influences”, kept it grounded. Too, a juxtaposition of the dominant right-leaning art intelligentsia of the thirties (Pound, Yeats, Eliot) with near total refusal of direct political engagement of Beckett’s art in the aftermath of WWII, led to interesting thoughts. If art has nothing to say to politics, or even tragedy, what is there left to say at all? And, just as importantly, how does an artist go about saying it, while dealing with all the things she cannot say? Here the link between Beckett and Cage becomes explicit, with no need for Joyce to bridge the gap.

The final event on the Saturday night took place in St. Macartin’s Cathedral at the top of the town. This is a strange building: the inside is decorated with old Union flags, the remnants of a huge organ, several TV screens and opulent stained-glass windows. At the front of the church, the Gavin Bryars Ensemble set up. Bryars made his name working in the flux between the London free jazz and experimental scenes of the 60s and 70s, but these days is engaged in a far more tame world of pretty chamber music. While some of the former glory was relived with a performance of Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet on Friday, Saturday’s concert is split into two less promising parts. The first is a series of Petrarch’s sonnets, translated by J.M Synge and set as madrigals by Bryars himself. This is solid but uninspiring with some interesting vocal work - particularly from soprano Payee Chen - somewhat smothered by the conservative nature of the music.

The second half is a set called Anail Dé, where the ensemble is joined by Irish singer Íarla Ó Lionard. Ó Lionard has an amazing voice, a genuinely incredible instrument which lives inside him. Unfortunately, his performances are universally depressing. His dedication to one particular emotional note would be impressive, if it weren’t so heavy-handed. This is self-consciously sorrowful music, music clearly meant to stir the soul in some deep place, but it feels empty as it tries to impress upon the listener its own deeply-held seriousness. The music gives you only one thing to feel; if you don’t feel it, you feel nothing. It is both somnolent and florid, an outwardly sophisticated blend of fin de siècle torpor and excess gilding a core of pure ennui. There’s no room in there for the listener, such is the over-bearing presence of the artist and the sheer bloody-mindedness with which they go about delivering melancholy to the heights of the cathedral roof - and this feels particularly out of place at a festival about Beckett.

Once again, a recourse to Beckett’s own work shows the way forward. Our last port of call before leaving Monday morning is the performance of Words and Music, the radio play written by Beckett in collaboration with Morton Feldman. Over forty minutes, an old man named Croak mediates between Joe, who is words, and Bob, who is music. Bob, in this particular case, is the Crash Ensemble, probably Ireland’s foremost contemporary music collective. The performance was directed by Netia Jones and, as was the case with Catastrophe, subtle use of lighting, imaginative but restrained staging and a typically direct immersion make for a wonderful experience. Feldman’s spare, patient music, all emotions and none, is the perfect sparring partner for the barely sensible wordplay of Joe. In the battle to communicate something, anything, with all our broken and ill-shaped language, to relate the unrelatable, music always wins out over words and Beckett himself acknowledged this. Walking back into the Monday morning sunlight reflecting off the lake outside the Ardhowen Theatre, it’s the music that sticks in the mind, colouring the already fading memory of what we’ve just seen and heard.

As a festival, Happy Days has a ways to go. The audience on this opening weekend is small and, though it doesn’t matter as such, old. Still, it becomes important if we ask the question of who the festival is trying to attract, or who it even can attract in its attempt to grow. Events are spread out, both geographically and over time, while some barely happen at all - the (by all accounts fantastic) Theatre Nono production of Godot in French was over before we even got there, on the third day of the two-week festival. As each event is individually ticketed, any attempt to see more than a handful of things is going to run to a significant cash outlay, particularly for the non-local who has accommodation, food and transport to consider. The visual art programme seems a half-forgotten addendum, used to put big names like Steve McQueen, Derek Jarman and Tacita Dean on the flyers but serving little purpose in the experience of the festival as a whole. Those without cars are at a distinct disadvantage, with one of the central attractions completely inaccessible without one, as are those with jobs. There was no plan to replace the cancelled Roaratorio, which the organisers knew was weather dependent, leaving a huge gap in Sunday evening’s programme in particular. At 6pm, we had no option but to hit the pub, a course of action that led to many people missing the Purgatorio Island readings taking place at 7am the following morning (though that’s obviously not strictly the festival’s fault, with the Guinness and good company in Blakes Of The Hollow sharing some of the blame at least).

All that said, the experience is overall a positive one. The productions of Beckett’s own work in particular are delivered brilliantly, and everything that is good is very good indeed. It is ambitious and uncompromising, as it should be, and it is engaging with Enniskillen in a multifaceted way. It’s a strange little place, oddly tense - there are two separate sectarian parades and a giant farmer-led fracking protest in the 48 hours we’re there, as well as a pipe bomb scare outside the town, bringing with them a constant police presence - but it’s obvious that the town itself has embraced the festival too. If the team behind the festival can fill in the gaps in the programme, tighten up how things are run and generally make the whole thing more accessible and appealing to those without large amounts of spare time and money, then there’s every chance it’ll be a highlight of the Irish arts festival calendar for years to come. I’m sure there’s a suitable Beckett quote that would fit here to wrap things up but, for the life of me, I can’t think of one.