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Beckett in Enniskillen

A long weekend in Northern Ireland offers food for thought and fuel for the imagination

Ian McIlhinney in Stirrings Still (Happy Days Beckett Festival 2015)
© John McVitty

It felt a bit like Belleville Rendezvous on Craggy Island, a flight of surreal fancy amid the lakeland green of County Fermanagh. But the fourth Happy Days Samuel Beckett Festival knows what it's doing. Artistic director Seán Doran keeps its boots firmly planted even when he's wrong-footing the audience.

Memories of Doran's brief tenure at English National Opera have been drowned by the brouhaha around his successor, John Berry, even though he is the man who commissioned Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly and Deborah Warner's Death in Venice among others. But ENO was never a happy spouse for this calm, kindly bear of a man. Arts festivals, on the other hand, are his lifeblood.

Samuel Beckett may be no one's idea of a popular playwright but his significance as a dramatist son of the emerald isle is rivalled only by Oscar Wilde (a fellow alumnus of Enniskillen's Portora Royal School). The annual festival that bears his name, with its excavation of forgotten nuggets alongside fresh takes on the major works, does more than keep the flame alive; it lights a beacon.

Frankie McCafferty and Vincent Higgins in Ohio Impromptu (Happy Days Beckett Festival 2015)
© John McVitty

Two of the most haunting shows I caught over the course of a long weekend were loaded with poetic density. Ohio Impromptu and Stirrings Still, late miniatures on familiar themes of bereavement and desolation, were each viewed following something akin to a pilgrimage, the former by river boat to a gloomy hut in the shade of a ruined 6th-century monastery, the latter by coach to overgrown woodland around Castle Caldwell, way out west towards the sea.

Both works share a level of textual concentration where meaning arises out of mood. Adrian Dunbar directed Ohio Impromptu with painstaking fidelity to Beckett's performance instructions and, thanks as much to his bleak setting as to the measured performances of Frankie McCafferty and Vincent Higgins, conjured an overpowering mournfulness.

Another day, another hut, as Netia Jones took an old man's prose tale (Stirrings Still was Beckett's final published work) and transformed it into an elusive but harrowing moment of theatre. Inner turmoil was separated from outer stillness by the masterful Ian McIlhinney, whose physical rendition was played out to his own recorded narration. The day I saw it there were buckets to catch the rain. Perfect.

Of the larger-scale works, Max Stafford-Clark's voice-only staging of the radio play All That Fall was enacted with a few too many sound effects to a masked audience seated in an immersive space. The eternal Godot, meanwhile, is keenly awaited in George Tabori's visiting production by the Berliner Ensemble that marks the play's 60th anniversary.

Maguy Marin Dance Company in May B (Happy Days Beckett Festival 2015)
© Didier Grappe

The ten-day festival is leavened by several non-Beckett interludes, and I caught a fine mid-morning recital of Shostakovich and Schumann trios that showcased, among others, the sublime cello of Jamie Walton. But I'll be sad to miss Sophie Hunter's heavily trailed staging of Britten's Phaedra next weekend, with Ruby Philogrene in the title role, plus bold-looking realisations of T S Eliot's Four Quartets and The Waste Land.

Still, you can't have everything, and at least I saw May B. This extraordinary, glorious show by the Maguy Marin Dance Company from France was first seen 34 years ago and has toured the world sporadically ever since. It draws on themes from Beckett's plays to create a world where ten synchronised grotesques lust and weep and fail to voice thoughts that cry out to be cried out. The accompanying music ranges from Schubert's Death and the Maiden (the string quartet that punctuates All That Fall) to Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet – a song which, recorded way back by a long-dead tramp and elaborated on a loop by Gavin Bryars, has a tragic, unending, unfulfillable optimism that is pure Beckett.

The Happy Days International Beckett Festival continues at venues in and around Enniskillen until 3 August