The inaugural Happy Days Festival certainly lived up to its name.
So much so, in fact, that the celebration of all things Samuel Beckett will be making a welcome return to Co Fermanagh next year.
The five-day festival finished yesterday with mezzo soprano Ruby Philogene belting out Schubert at Castle Coole near Enniskillen.
The closing concert signalled the end of a festival which was a huge success in terms of numbers of festival-goers, ticket sales and that indefinable quality — atmosphere.
The number of people descending on the Co Fermanagh town where the revered Irish author was educated more than doubled, with thousands of extra visitors thought to have signed up for local food, drink, scenery and culture.
Festival director Sean Doran said he was “dazed by the success” of the event.
“The volume of people coming into Fermanagh has been a huge surprise. We’ve had queues down the street, and I estimate well over double the number of visitors with audiences of 400 for the smaller scale classical concerts.”
Artistic producer Cathie Boyd had been working on the event, also known as the International Beckett Festival, with director Doran for a year.
She said: “Sean has been talking about the project for about seven years.
“It’s an ambitious programme but Sean has a brilliant vision and has made Beckett accessible on so many levels.”
She added: “It’s not just the programme, though, it’s the way the festival has worked with the local town of Enniskillen. People have been having Samuel Beckett haircuts, they’ve been eating Krapp’s sandwiches (in fact banana and Nutella). The whole thing has been brilliant for the local economy.”
The town’s 340-seat Ardhowen Theatre — whose summer programme would normally include light entertainment and amateur dramatics rather than Edna O’Brien and Krapp’s Last Tape — reported brisk business.
Manager Jackie Owens said: “Krapp’s Last Tape sold out on Saturday night and the other performances were well attended.
“We were thrilled to launch the festival with Edna O’Brien’s talk about Beckett the ‘terrifying yet tender’ man, and the place was packed.”
Ms Owens added that the festival had attracted visitors and locals to the theatre in a 50:50 ratio, and had significantly increased business during the traditional slow season.
One festival-goer from Belfast said: “There was a great buzz about the town and the choice of events was incredibly rich.
“There were lots of international big names participating like David Soul, Will Self and Lady Antonia Fraser, as well as homegrown talent like Adrian Dunbar.
“It was marvellous to see events as varied as Robert Wilson's distinctive Krapp's Last Tape at Ardhowen Theatre to Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh discussing the Arab Spring in the open air in the ruins of Portora Castle.
“I'm looking forward to next year already.”
While Mr Doran said it was too early to calculate numbers in attendance, the clear success of the Happy Days Festival 2012 meant there would definitely be a repeat performance in 2013.
“It was always going to be an annual festival and we will definitely do it again,” he said.
5 of the best offerings from the inaugural event honouring playwright
- Krapp’s Last Tape with Robert Wilson. Samuel Beckett’s famous one-man memory play — originally written in 1958 for Ulster actor Patrick Magee — received a powerful reinterpretation from American producer and actor Robert Wilson who gave a “determinedly” chilling staging and got universal four-star reviews. People dropping in to Beckett’s old school, Portora, could see tapes of Magee and John Hurt in the role.
- David Soul reading early Beckett excerpts from The Assumption in the Portora Royal Chapel. The smooth-voiced crooner, formerly half of Starsky and Hutch and noted for his readings of Neruda, added a bit of popular culture cred to the proceedings.
- Not I. Lisa Dwan took over the role made famous by Billie Whitelaw and played Mouth, a disembodied organ delivering 20 minutes of semi-articulate pain and angst.
- English composer Gavin Bryars gave a “wild performance” of Beckett songs and also wowed the audience with his song The Sinking Of The Titanic, sung at the time of day the great ship went down.
- Precious Little at St Michael’s Church. A performance of the slow movement from Beethoven’s The Ghost Trio, one of Beckett’s favourite works. This short gem attracted an audience of hundreds of people.