Ask any inveterate arts lover in the north to pick out some of his or her best memories in the theatre over the past couple of decades and the chances are that on the list will be at least one of the following: the magical world of the Philippe Genty Company; Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s thrilling Gaudeamus; the bewitching nocturnal promenade through the streets of Derry, led by Gardzienice, the experimental company from a tiny village in Poland; Fiona Shaw’s spine-tingling Electra, performed in a sports hall in Derry on a night of terrible bloodshed in the city; Juliet Stephenson’s unsettling Not I, jabbering away in the pitch darkness of Belfast’s Tower Street studio; Robert Wilson’s strange but irresistible Saints and Singing, presented in a leisure centre to the distant sounds of children rushing to and from the swimming pool.
The man behind them all is Sean Doran, the Derry-born musician, whose peripatetic career in the arts world has seen him at the helm of, amongst others, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, the Perth International Arts Festival, English National Opera, the UK Year of Literature and Writing 1995 and, back in the early 1990s, Impact ‘92 and Octoberfest in his native city.
During the course of the latter two festivals, Doran provided the perfect justification for setting out on the long road to Derry, sometimes several times a week, to experience a programme of international one-off events, taking place in a tense, pre-ceasefire atmosphere of conflict and division. Twenty years on, he is pausing in his travels to return to home territory, fixing his creative compass west-north-west – as Beckett would have it - towards the Fermanagh island town of Enniskillen. There at the end of August, he will direct his latest brainchild Happy Days, the first of what he envisages as an annual international festival dedicated to the work of Samuel Beckett.
As his track record shows, he has never been afraid to go for broke on what he judges to be an innovative, ground-breaking concept. More often than not, the risk has paid off, though he readily acknowledges that there have been exceptions. During Doran’s tenure as artistic director and chief executive at English National Opera, the late Anthony Minghella directed his first opera, a hugely imaginative, much talked-about version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which the role of the young child was played by a puppet. It is now firmly established in the repertoires of ENO and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. But he was criticised in some quarters within the music establishment for programming Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance and putting on ENO’s first musical, a revival of Bernstein-Comden-Green’s On the Town, as well as for committing the near hangable offence of taking the company to Glastonbury, where it performed Act III of The Valkyrie, with a full orchestra as the climax of the festival.
“It wasn’t a gimmick,” he insists. “It wasn’t about being populist but about making opera accessible. Wagner wrote that he wanted The Ring to be done at a festival, outdoors and for free. So going to Glastonbury ticked all those boxes.
“When I arrived at ENO, the words on many people’s lips were ‘Sean Who?’ I understand why, as I didn’t know as much about opera as I did about theatre productions. I was brought in for my change-making skills at festivals. My appointment coincided with the two very important events - the re-opening of ENO’s home base, the London Coliseum, which had just undergone a £41 million restoration, and the premiere of the company’s new version of Wagner’s Ring cycle” (whose rehearsal schedule had been blown apart by last minute building work). “I inherited a serious deficit situation, which required a major fundraising programme. They were difficult times, but I look back on the experience very fondly .”
Together with his opera singer wife Ruby Philogene, Doran has now made his home in Western Australia, where he spent three happy years as artistic director of the Perth Festival. From that base, he keeps the plates spinning under a number of projects worldwide but, as he freely admits, he remains the perfect illustration of the old saying that you can take a boy out of Ireland, but ...
Happy Days has been on his radar for some time. Indeed, before his sudden death four years ago, Minghella had agreed to be its patron. The festival would have happened much sooner, had it not been for Doran’s wife falling seriously ill. “I have always had an interest in Beckett,” he says. “When I was director of the Belfast Festival, I programmed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s series of shorts, directed by Katie Mitchell, which included Juliet Stephenson in Not I.
“After I left ENO in 2006 , I decided to take a year to myself. For goodness knows how long, I had been moving between art forms, between countries, always starting anew. With nothing to distract me, I started reading Beckett and it inspired and enthused me to a huge extent. I admit I became quite obsessed with it. I also found great wisdom and solace in it during the time that Ruby was sick.
“A number of ideas started forming in my mind. In 2006 and 2008, I persuaded two actors Sam West and Richard Dormer to record the taped extracts from Krapp’s Last Tape. As you know, Krapp records himself on his 39th birthday with the intention of playing back the tapes thirty years later. The first line of the play is “An evening in the future ...” Sam and Richard did the recordings at the exact age required by the play and have signed up to play the role of Krapp in 2036 and 2038 respectively.”
Doran has conceived Happy Days not only as a celebration of Beckett’s own work but also as a showcase for the many other artists and art forms which have been inspired and informed by him. Visual arts, classical music, film, song, comedy, literature all have their place on the programme, with Doran pulling in key contributions from the likes of film-maker Atom Egoyan, artist Antony Gormley (whose Godot Tree has been specially created for the festival), musician Gavin Byers, writers Edna O’Brien, Antonia Fraser, Paul Muldoon and John Banville. But he had not found a natural home for the festival until he had a chance conversation with an old friend David Grant, a former artistic director of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre and now head of drama at Queen’s University’s.
“David mentioned that Beckett had been a pupil at Portora Royal School,” he explains. “I had no idea. In fact, I’m ashamed to say I had never in my life been to Enniskillen. Then, in the way that these things happen, I learned from my father that my great grandfather had been born there and had moved to Derry when he was ten.
“It’s a stunning place - so completely Beckettian. Fermanagh has that deep, mysterious sense of a layering of pasts, of being lost in time; it contains many, many cultural and historical layers, from the ancient pagan statues on Boa Island to the castle, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 6th Dragoons, right through to the Remembrance Day bomb in 1987.
“The landscape seems to have been painted in a palette of understated watery colours, the kind of muted tones one associates with Beckett. What I find particularly beguiling is that there is mention in Krapp’s Last Tape of ‘the upper lake’ and, in the famous dream sequence, he writes of a punt in the reeds. In no other place where Beckett lived do such references apply. And the flat-bottomed boat moored on a lake is, of course, the iconic tourism image for Fermanagh. So this festival is more than merely taking place in the town where Beckett went to school, it’s about a nostalgic homecoming to an environment which made a profound impression on him during his formative years. It’s perfect.”
A flick through the programme provokes a familiar frisson of anticipation akin to days long gone. The headline show reunites Doran with the man described recently in the Daily Telegraph newspaper as “... America’s internationally renowned and boundary-breaking theatre and opera director.” Only twice before in his long and illustrious career has 70 year-old Robert Wilson appeared in his own work. Here he will be playing the title role in his version of Krapp’s Last Tape, the play Beckett wrote for the Northern Ireland actor Patrick Magee. Wilson’s production premiered in Rome in 2010 and has since been staged in Paris and Rio de Janiero. This will be its first and only appearance in Ireland and the UK.
Wilson and Beckett met in the early 1970s and discovered that they had much in common. In fact, the writer suggested that the director might think about doing some of his work. In a recent interview, Wilson reflected that playing Krapp has helped him to become a better director.
“It’s 15 minutes before he speaks the first word,” he says. “How do you play silent? That’s difficult. How do you bring out the humour? These are big challenges.”
Pan Pan will be presenting its highly praised installation of All That Fall, the one-act radio play set in a melancholy, Godless world and originally commissioned by the BBC. Beckett was taken by the invitation to create a play for radio and wrote to a friend: “Never thought about radio play technique but in the dead of t’other night got a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging of feet and puffing and panting, which may or may not lead to something.” Pan Pan’s recording is relayed to an audience, who are seated in rocking chairs. The result is what Doran describes as “... an Irish contemporary realisation of a classic Beckett play.”
From Porto will come Teatro Plástico, a company whose focus is on contemporary drama and multimedia art. It will be bringing a triple bill comprising Rough For Theatre, which Beckett wrote in French, his final play What Where and the enigmatic poem What is the Word, which was the last piece he wrote.
Beckett’s mime play Act Without Words 1 will be presented by Clastic Théâtre, the world-famous puppet company based in his adopted home city of Paris. Over the years, it had has amassed a fascinating body of provocative, sometimes controversial work and, like Teatro Plástico, is here making its first ever visit to Ireland.
The theatre programme is completed by Lisa Dwan’s Not I, first performed at Battersea Arts Centre in London in 2005 as part of the Beckett centenary celebrations. She famously reprised it in July 2009 at the Southbank Centre, completing it in a breakneck time of nine minutes and fifty seconds, as opposed to its usual playing time of between twelve and fifteen minutes.
Doran has consciously set out to establish what he calls ‘a destination festival’, using the arts as a vehicle. His mission is to bring audiences to Enniskillen from Belfast, Dublin and much further afield. He hints at a certain serendipity surrounding the event, pointing out that, in the context of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, the Titanic Belfast Festival, the NI 2012 festival and Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013, the timing of the event has, albeit unintentionally, turned out to be spot on. It has certainly captured the imagination of some significant backers, attracting support to the tune of £50,000 from the Cultural Olympiad, £97,500 from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, £90,000 from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and £25,000 - “... plus lots in kind ...” from Fermanagh District Council. But his focus is now on copper- fastening the festival’s future, as well as ensuring the longevity of its content.
“In terms of longevity, there is no question of it,’ says Doran. “There is a very large body of original work, as well as work inspired by Beckett. Next on my horizon is a celebration of the shorts, of which there are at least twenty, by commissioning new productions of them. Within a festival context we can invite directors of film, opera and the visual arts, as well as theatre, to come up with their own individual interpretations.
“It has been quite a challenge to put together such a new type of concept. We are programming an entire festival within the autobiography of one man, his life and his work. But because he was such an extraordinary man and because of the huge variety of that work, it has allowed us to create a very diverse festival, which even includes sport, which he loved. Playing on Beckett’s schoolboy humour, there’ll be a Bend It Like Beckett football match, the Muckball Cup rugby competition, a bicycle race, a crricket match – with a Beckettian double r - and a running race to find the fastest artist in Ireland. And we’re getting t-shirts printed with the very cool line ‘Fuck life!’, which are, of course, the final words of Rockaby.”
Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist and critic, who also contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.