Seán Doran on programming border-hopping Beckett, Wilde and Friel-inspired festivals in the Brexit era
As the popular Arts Over Borders festival trinity returns for more Irish literary giants-inspired cultural happenings, David Roy speaks to festival curator Sean Doran about what we can expect from this year's Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, A Wilde Weekend and Lughnasa FrielFest
IT'S NOW just over a week until the Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival gets underway for its seventh year of celebrating the life and works of the late, great Samuel Beckett in interesting and often 'site specific' ways.
Following hot on its heels will be the annual Wilde Weekend – another Co Fermanagh-centric festival which brings Oscar Wilde-inspired events to the banks of 'Lough Ernest' and the streets of Enniskillen he knew as a youth – and the border-straddling Lughnasa FrielFest, which eulogises all things Brian Friel with happenings in Co Donegal and Co Derry.
All three are presented under the umbrella 'Arts Over Borders' and built on the 'biofestival' model, with the Irish literary greats' lives, likes, themes and concerns becoming inspirational fodder for festival programmers DoranBrowne – Seán Doran and Liam Browne, the duo at the helm of this trio of literary events – alongside their actual written works.
For example, the music of Schubert is a staple at Happy Days because the Austrian maestro was Beckett's favourite composer. Accordingly, this year's festival goers will be treated to Schwanengesang (Swansong) at the Ardhowen Theatre (July 27 and 28) in addition to the now traditional performance of Winterreise at St Macartin's Cathedral (July 28) – which has been given a fresh twist for 2019, the 30th anniversary of Beckett's death.
"We always have Schubert," confirms Seán Doran of the festival he founded in 2012 to celebrate Co Fermanagh's inspirational impact on the Dublin-born writer, who was a boarder at Portora Royal School between 1920 and 1923.
"It's very much a Beckett/Schubert-led festival I suppose, with Schwanengesang and Winterreise. Roderick Williams is singing Winterreise – you can't get a better top class baritone to be singing these songs. And it's in English for the first time in our seven years, in a translation by Jeremy Sams."
As for Schwanengesang, that will be a UK and Ireland premiere staged by acclaimed Italian theatre director Romeo Castellucci.
"He is the genius in today's world of theatre," enthuses Doran.
"I went to the dress rehearsal for his Mozart’s Requiem which is opening this year's Aix En Provence Opera Festival and I have to say it was quite extraordinary.
"In fact, I would stand by saying it's probably the single greatest piece of theatre I've seen in my entire life – and I've seen quite a bit."
Indeed, Derry-born Doran was formerly the artistic director and CEO of English National Opera, having also run the Belfast Festival in the late 1990s and enjoyed a stint as director of the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia.
Another coup for this year's Happy Days programme comes courtesy of the internationally renowned Mark Morris Dance Group, which will present the world premiere performances of three Beckett short plays, Come & Go, Catastrophe and Quad, at Enniskillen Royal Grammar (formerly Portora Royal School) and The Regal cinema (July 25 to 28).
"Mark would not be a creator who'd be expected to be associated with Beckett," comments Doran, who previously commissioned the acclaimed US choreographer to create his Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band-inspired ballet work Pepperland for Liverpool City Council as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations for The Beatles' LP in 2017.
"The long-standing thought on Beckett is that his work is 'difficult' but Mark's lightness of being will allow him to 'do' Beckett in a more pure Beckett way. He'll wear it lightly but the integrity of his work is as deep as Beckett's and I think that's why he's a very interesting 'fit'.
"In fact, we believe this will be the first time that a major international choreographer will be taking on Beckett's plays and directing them. So it will be a very unique world premiere in itself and great for Enniskillen to have both these artists leading the festival."
He adds: "It's the marrying of international world class work in a kind of an unlikely, tranquil, rural setting – but I think that's the very essence of the European arts festival that we know in every other country throughout Europe.
"[Happy Days] is Northern Ireland's first and only international multi-arts summer festival in the sort of sisterhood or guise of the European summer arts festivals. I think that's very important."
Other Happy Days highlights include festival regular and Co Fermanagh native Adrian Dunbar directing a production of Ohio Impromptu on Devenish Island (July 25 to 28) and reading Assumption at the Chapel of Enniskillen Royal Grammar (July 26), plus special Waiting For Godot-themed event All Mankind Is Us: Walking for Waiting for Godot (July 27 and 28) during which audiences will be bused to the Irish border before embarking on a three kilometre walk to Sir Antony Gormley’s festival sculpture Tree For Waiting For Godot, installed in the blanket bog just under Cuilcach Mountain between Co Fermanagh and Co Cavan.
A Wilde Weekend – subtitled 'A trivial festival for serious people!' for 2019 – kicks off with a 'Wildetalk' by Matthew Sturgis on his biography Oscar: A Life (August 2) and includes a screening of Rupert Everett's acclaimed 'Wildefilm' The Happy Prince (August 2), David Grant-directed excerpts of Wilde’s plays at Enniskillen Royal (August 2 to 5), a 'Wildetrip' bus journey to a secret garden for a reading of The Selfish Giant (August 4) and 'Wildtowne' readings held in various Market Town shops around Enniskillen (August 2 to 3).
Not to be outdone, this year's FrielFest boasts an opening festival talk by award-winning author and Guardian editor Gary Younge (August 16), promenade productions of Friel's Faith Healer (August 9 to 11 and August 16 to 18) featuring actors including Patrick Bergin, Robert Glenister, Dearbhla Molloy, Paul McGann and Amelia Bullmore, a promenade production of Freedom of The City (August 15 to 18) starring Siobhan McSweeney (Sister Michael from Derry Girls) and actors Cathy Tyson and Greta Scacchi reading Homer 'by the sea' on Donegal and Causeway Coast beaches.
This will likely be the last year for the three 'Arts Over Borders' festivals before Brexit arrives. According to Seán Doran, the programmers have relished the challenge of reflecting the fact that the Irish border has become an entirely new political hot potato.
For example, it's no coincidence that the opening talk at Happy Days 2019 is by historian and author Diarmaid Ferriter on his book The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics (July 25).
"We have kind of evolved alongside the Brexit process," Doran tells me of how the festivals have been reacting to current events.
"The programming is being sort of influenced [by Brexit] by us criss-crossing the border and moving audiences back and forth across it. The border has become for us a binding agent as opposed to a dividing agent – that's how we're flip-flopping it."
:: Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, July 25 to 28 / A Wilde Weekend: Wildetown, Home of the Happy Prince, Enniskillen, August 2 to 5 / Lughnasa FrielFest, August 6 to 18. See Artsoverborders.com for full programme details