Michael Coveney: Battle over Beckett in Enniskillen and Edinburgh next month
The second Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival was launched yesterday lunchtime in the Irish Embassy in London, and the departing ambassador, Bobby McDonagh (he's going to Rome), told a great linguistic, Beckettian joke.
In the light of new optimism in the peace process, the Queen's visit to Ireland and the burgeoning cultural scene, he told of a man making a speech to the effect that two negatives always make a positive, whereas two positives never make a negative; a Dublin man at the back piped up sarcastically - "Yeah, right."
This reminded me of the Beckett friend walking around Dublin on a glorious summer day and saying to the playwright, "Sure, it makes you feel glad to be alive," to which Beckett glumly replied, "I wouldn't go that far."
Last year's Enniskillen festival, over the last weekend of August, was a total blast, and artistic director Sean Doran has lined up just as enticing a programme this year, with a special emphasis on Beckett's favourite literary work, Dante's Divine Comedy (just re-published in a new version by Aussie poet Clive James); on his short plays and stories; and on the game of chess, an obsession of Beckett's that runs like a thread through his work culminating in Endgame.
The artist Alan Milligan has created 32 giant chess sets in various locations around Enniskillen where the pieces are all characters from the plays. The two chess players will mount ladders and speak their moves through tannoys while two "pushers" will move the pieces: Winnie (in Happy Days), the White Queen, has a pawn called Willie who, in turn, has an opposite pawn, a revolver. There's an exclusive club of fund-raisers this year called Krapp Friends.
Dante's great poem is written in three sections: the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Inferno will involve a journey into the Marble Arch Caves for a site-specific event with 33 readers (three was a magic number for both Dante and Beckett), each reading a canto; Purgatorio, an early morning boat trip to the islands across Lough Erne; and Paradiso, through the clouds, which Dante only imagined, a plane journey flying 33 ticket-buying adventurers from the Edinburgh Festival to St Angelo Airport in Enniskillen while listening, en route, to the poetry of Dante, Beckett and Yeats.
And here's the rub: this all happens on exactly the same weekend as Edinburgh has mischievously programmed its own Beckett mini-festival, with Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton appearing in Eh Joe, Barry McGovern reviving his great monologue from the novels, I'll Go On - these two shows from the Gate Theatre in Dublin, where artistic director Michael Colgan claims first dibs in Beckett as well as Pinter these past few years - and then Pan Pan Theatre presenting their brilliantly theatrical lighting and soundscape version of the Beckett radio play, All That Fall, seen at last year's Enniskillen Festival.
That plane journey no doubt represents a kidnap, or heist, as Beckett is wrestled from the Edinburgh festival-goers and flown home to the town where he went to school, Enniskillen. The local squire, Viscount Brookeborough, turned up at the embassy to say how important the first festival had been for the town, and indeed Northern Ireland as a whole, generating an income of £2million in County Fermanagh and contributing to the ongoing change in the political climate triggered by the Queen's visit in 2011.
As the Viscount left the podium, the sound system exploded in a terrible extended crackle of pops and bangs, like some cheap, low-rent fireworks display without the visuals; Sean Doran, who runs the whole thing on a budget of £350,000 (plus any sponsorship he can find), said he'd be happy to claim that as part of the official opening ceremony festivities.
In that cheese-paring spirit, he also announced an opening pop-up parade in the town, to which he hopes all participants and visitors will bring their own Beckett-themed festival outfit - time to check out those old battered boots, exploding umbrellas, stray carrots and bananas, dustbin lids and ladders. This could be the most depressing carnival ever, the ultimate antidote to Notting Hill.
Edward Beckett, the author's nephew, who supervises his estate, nodded benignly as all these oddities were announced. But at least the boat trip to Purgatory doesn't depart until seven in the morning; last year, there was a 5.30 departure to hear locally born actor Adrian Dunbar do the honours on a remote tuft of island granite, and Doran admitted delightedly that he'd been in Blake's Tavern until 2.30am before hopping aboard and wrecking the rest of his day.
Dunbar is back again this year, alongside Harriet Walter, Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw, Diana Quick, Miranda Richardson and Neil Pearson, all of whom will read short stories - lasting between 15 minutes and half an hour - at various locations, and at different times, all over town. What larks there will be, and so many surprises.