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Michael Coveney: Back to school with Beckett in Enniskillen

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The point of having the first "Happy Days" International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, this weekend was that Sam the man went to school in the town for a few years.

So, founder and artistic director Sean Doran, who you'll remember quit running the ENO after he refused to produce Kismet ("They said they wanted another Wonderful Town; but that was Bernstein, for God's sake!"), decided not to present a sober-sided Beck-fest along the lines of the fine seasons of Beckett and Pinter at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, but to go all multi-media and quirky on us.

The result was strange, funny and slightly weird, with sporting events ("Bend it like Beckett") that reflected the author's athletic obsessions; literary festival-type talks with Antonia Fraser, Edna O'Brien, John Banville and Will Self; and pop-up concerts and installations that expanded Beckett into illuminating dimensions.

Literally so in the case of All That Fall, the radio play that will feature Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon at the Jermyn Street Theatre next month. We, the audience, sat on rocking chairs in a darkened room beneath a canopy of lightbulbs while the text was spoken, very well, by a bunch of recorded Irish actors behind the black drapes and the sound effects as the headlights of the oncoming train closed in.

It was a deeply evocative "staging" of a piece which the Beckett estate has released for performance in London on condition that it's done as a radio play. Fair enough, really: I couldn't imagine Dame Eileen getting the humour of her grunts and groans while being physically man-handled into the horse-drawn carriage like a bale of hay.

And you mess with the Beckett estate at your peril. I referred to this in an onstage discussion after Lisa Dwan's stunning performance as the jabbering mouth in Not I (she came in at well under ten minutes, a personal best if not an Olympic record). We were actually sitting in Beckett's (and, as it happens, Oscar Wilde's) old school hall at Portora Royal, where he played rugby and cricket and was light heavyweight boxing champion.

The point at issue was the lack of the silent character, the auditor, in Dwan's performance. But there is a precedent, in the version of the play performed by Madeleine Renaud in Paris, so the option has been incorporated, as it were, in the licence.

I then launched into an enthusiastic recollection of Fiona Shaw's performance in Footfalls which, in Deborah Warner's production, she "liberated" from the tiny strip of walkway indicated by the stage directions into an auditorium-embracing tramp. The estate came down on the show like a ton of bricks and, rather peevishly, withdrew the licence and killed the performance.

Unknown to me, Beckett's nephew, Edward, who runs the estate, was sitting in the audience. Lisa Dwan told me afterwards that she was trying to kick my shins as I waffled on, and Sean Doran said that Beckett junior started plucking at his old white hairs.

Just as I was about to beat a hasty retreat, the man himself (or rather, his nephew) came up and said hello in the nicest possible way and said we should meet and talk about things some time soon, a prospect I much relish.

This reminded me of Peggy Ashcroft's story of performing Rosmersholm in Oslo and hearing a knock on her dressing room door. "Who is it?" she cried: "Mr Ibsen." And his nephew walked into the room.

Edward is certainly as tall as his uncle, obviously more affable, with a good head of Beckett hair (you could have a "Beckett" haircut - obviously a short back and sides - in the town over the weekend, not to mention an Endgame sandwich of ham and clove) and an easy profile; he's spared the gaunt, aquiline features of a writer Antonia Fraser nonetheless described at her session as the handsomest man she'd ever met.

Anyway, the festival interestingly tested the notion of doing Beckett imaginatively as well as accurately, and none more so than Robert Wilson, whose appearance in Krapp's Last Tape was the programme's centrepiece. And very remarkable it was too, a clownish, white-face performance with agile movement and a brilliant setting of sound, fury and torrential rain in a black and white office.

No Krapp I've ever seen has peeled his banana with such sullen ferocity and sexual non-ambiguity. Harold Pinter didn't even bother with a banana (I wonder what the estate thought about that!?), while Max Wall made the banana interlude look like a sad memory of fading potency and cheap laughter.

After years of stand-off with the British theatre, Wilson, the now 70 year-old darling of the avant-garde, has suddenly become a regular, with three productions here this year: his wonderful Einstein on the Beach at the Barbican; his Walking installation on Holkham beach, Norfolk; and now this significant, and totally original, European premiere of his Beckett take, fulfilling a long-ago suggestion by the author himself that he should do his work.

The catalyst for Wilson in Britain has been the London 2012 festival, run as part of the Cultural Olympiad by Ruth Mackenzie. And Sean Doran admits that his six-year dream of the Enniskillen festival was only kick-started by Mackenzie's commitment to it, and the contributuon of a third of the overall cash budget of £300,000. This may sound like no hill of beans, but in Northern Ireland, that budget is big potatoes.

"Happy Days" may be here again after the terrible bombings of 1987, but Enniskillen is still a subdued country town in the middle of the most glorious Fermanagh countryside. The visiting press were billeted in a country house hotel on Lough Erne, with artists on the other side of the lake in the resort hotel that serves Nick Faldo's new golf course.

Not that we spent much time there. In a day and a half, I attended twelve events, including a 15-minute pop-up concert of Mahler songs (with Beckettian texts); and three installations, one of them an extraordinary occupation of the servants' quarters at Castle Coole by the whispering Beckettian voices of Barry McGovern and Natasha Parry, signalled by a stainless steel tree in the courtyard designed by Antony Gormley, no less, for an Australian Irish Waiting for Godot at the festival in the year after next.

For it seems Doran is signed up for the long haul here, making Beckett as synonymous with Enniskillen as Wagner with Bayreuth, Mozart with Salzburg or Shakespeare with Stratford-upon-Avon. And why not? The originality of his approach should ensure a lively, entertaining programme for several years at least.

And the local folk have embraced his initiative with enthusiasm; attendances exceeded all expectations, and the volunteer staff proved a joyous continuation of this year's Olympic spirit of involvement. Not only that: a "fringe" has instantly sprouted, too, just as it did at the Edinburgh Festival way back in 1947.

Next year, nearby Derry, Doran's home town, will be the Cultural Capital of Europe. I learned in Enniskillen that Stephen Rea will be reviving his Field Day company of the 1980s (which introduced us to an unknown Liam Neeson in Brian Friel's masterpiece, Translations) with a world premiere of a new play by Sam Shepard.

The healing process in Ulster is seriously under way, and Eniskillen 2012 is a sure indicator that Derry 2013 could be a clinching celebration. Let's hope so, anyway...


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