Happy Days Festival does Beckett and Brexit (1-6 August)

The final edition of the Happy Days International Beckett Festival in the border county of Fermanagh before Brexit takes place in Enniskillen between 1 and 6 August. The festival celebrates Beckett’s life, work and socio-political themes and is the sole remaining event that continues as a legacy of the 2012 UK Cultural Olympiad.

Co-curator of the festival, Sean Doran from Arts Over Borders, introduces three cultural projects that shed light on Brexit: a tragi-comedy classic, a modernist libretto and a specially commissioned 32-piece Beckett chess set.

Samuel Beckett attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Fermanagh during the year in which the border was created (1921), an act which turned Fermanagh itself into a border county separated from no less than four of its then neighbouring counties – Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan – all now part of the Republic of Ireland.

Waiting for Godot is the perfect play of choice for border and Brexit. The opening line says “Nothing to be done”, a phrase that is eerily timely for the Irish borderlands and the sense of powerlessness, of despair even, at the absurdity of reality felt by many today. But the arts stand in direct contradiction to this point of view. They say there is always something to be done, that change for the better can be effected through art.

The characters in Samuel Beckett’s play go round in circles, both verbally and physically, are disorientated, are forever waiting for something to happen but it never does. They want to move forward but instead remain fixed in the same spot. Sound familiar?

In Walking for Waiting for Godot, the audience will undertake a three-mile hour-long uphill walk via a beautiful meadow and round a hillside overlooking a deep glen to eventually come to a summit of bleak moorland upland where Turner Prize winner Sir Antony Gormley’s specially commissioned stainless steel sculpture, ‘Tree for Waiting for Godot’, will be waiting for their arrival precisely on the border line.

‘It arrives at the custom-house as it were, with no luggage, no passport and nothing to declare yet it gets through, as might a pilgrim from Mars …’ – Kenneth Tynan writing in The Observer, 1955, reviewing the premiere of the young Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

On Saturday 4 and Sunday 5 August, actors from the Republic of Ireland, led by the Dublin-based theatre director Annie Ryan, will perform two rehearsed readings around the 3.5m high Gormley sculpture within the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark. Two weeks later, on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 August, it will be the turn of the Lyric Theatre Belfast led by director Jimmy Fay.

Waiting for Godot is by its nature a binary play and this duality is teased out in the experience of watching it: the audience sit in a circle around the Tree sculpture, half ostensibly in Northern Ireland, and half in the Republic of Ireland. Two actors will approach from the south, meeting up with two coming from the north. Cast and audience will also be united in the shared experience of having sore feet: indeed Godot opens with Gogo (Estragon) rubbing his feet after constant walking!

The second special Beckett border curation is Three Billboards (Or More) Outside Enniskillen and Sligo, a cross-border collaboration between Happy Days and Sligo’s Tread Softly festival to celebrate the work of two Irish Nobel Laureates, Samuel Beckett and WB Yeats.

For a month between 25 July and 25 August, travellers heading across the border into the Republic of Ireland will be treated to the last stanza of Yeats’ The Tower across a series of bespoke billboards at the border. This is a poem that inspired Beckett’s late television-play …but the clouds… which will also be shown in this year’s Happy Days as part of the Devenish Island Triptych (2-4 August).

Drivers heading in the opposite direction will be welcomed to Northern Ireland with Beckett’s short prose libretto, neither, a piece of liminal writing that perfectly echoes the limbo-land we currently inhabit.

Originally commissioned for the 2013 Happy Days Festival and created by the Fermanagh sculptor and Festival Associate, Alan Milligan, the 32-piece Beckett Chess Set will be positioned on the bridge of Pettigo, exactly on the border with the ‘white pieces’ in one country and the ‘black pieces’ in the other.

Friendly cross-border invitational chess games will be arranged throughout the first five days of the festival. A tally of the score will be kept on a blackboard at the border. If it fits the times the match series will surely end in stalemate!

Full programme and ticket information is available on the 6th Happy Days International Beckett Festival website.

Photo credit: Cordula Treml