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Beckett Festival: Happy Days are here again


Sean Doran

Sean Doran

Sean Doran

When Samuel Beckett was dying from emphysema in Paris in 1989, he brought two books into the hospice to prepare himself for death: the King James Bible – instilled in him as a child by his Church of Ireland parents – and The Divine Comedy by Dante, with its description of the author's journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, where he looks into the face of God.

The handsome Beckett was a pupil at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen and no doubt would have approved of the reading of Inferno, by 33 men and women from Fermanagh, in the county's famous Marble Arch Caves later this month. And of the staging of his avant-garde masterpiece Waiting For Godot, with its fundamentally Biblical imagery, in the former Unionist Hall (La Salle de L'Union) in the city.

The productions are part of the huge Happy Days International Beckett Festival which will transform Enniskillen into Beckett Town in the third week of August. Although the legendary writer was born in upmarket Foxrock in Dublin, he is celebrated as a Portoran: he excelled at sport and French at the historic school, also attended by Oscar Wilde, and made lifelong friends there.

The man behind the festival is the multi-award winning Beckett-mad Sean Doran, one of the most innovative and daring artistic directors working in today's international arts world. A former director of the English National Opera and the Belfast Festival at Queen's, the Londonderry-born intellectual and his "invaluable" Belfast-born artistic director Ali Curran have attracted an impressive line-up to Enniskillen, including Winona Ryder, Fiona Shaw, Julianne Moore, Frank Skinner and Miranda Richardson.

As a result, the Happy Days production office is answering calls and emails of enquiry from all over the world. Following the success of last year's inaugural event, it's our equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival and another international trailblazer for Northern Ireland.

"The name of the festival raises a point – 'Happy Days' is an ordinary greeting here, banter that crosses cultures," says the urbane 52-year-old. "Locating the festival in Enniskillen in the summer means getting out of an urban environment and creating a holiday feeling.

"And Fermanagh is very lovely. Those images from the G8 made it look like the French Riviera. If you can get people to cross the threshold and listen to Beckett they will be surprised on an emotional and spiritual level."

Sean Doran is no luvvie, for all his impressive artistic accomplishments and connections. Softly spoken and unpretentious, he's keen to attract a "non-arts" audience to the festival, which features 13 world premieres of Beckett's work and other theatrical, art and literary happenings inspired by him.

"I rate Beckett as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century – not just because of the quality of his writing but the humanity in it and how it moves you and encapsulates the ordinary everyman and people's predicaments," he explains with a quiet intensity, over coffee in downtown Belfast.

"Waiting For Godot was revolutionary and changed the face of theatre forever. It was written through the lens of the single most quoted book, the King James Bible, and Beckett's concern for the marginalised. Everyone can relate to it."

Sean's beautiful mezzo-soprano wife Ruby Philogene MBE, a former winner of the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award, performs a free recital of Wagner in St Michael's Church as part of the festival, as well as the haunting Dido's Lament by Purcell in the naturally atmospheric Marble Arch Caves.

Married seven years, the couple split their time between the grand Colebrooke estate in Enniskillen and leafy Ladbroke Grove in London. Their first encounter made an immediate impact on the romantic Doran.

"Ruby was booked by the ENO and we had a mutual friend, a pianist, who set up a short meeting, for me to show her around," he recalls. "As I was leaving I turned back and looked at her – in true opera style. I'd fallen in love before I knew."

Sean, who has a 21-year-old son, Lughan, from a previous relationship, is the eldest of six children born to teachers Jack and Fidelis from Pennyburn in Derry.

"My parents were phenomenal when we were growing up – they gave us all the musical opportunities they didn't have themselves. I learned the clarinet and the bassoon and ended up as a conductor in London. They also gave us a great love of Irish traditional music and we were on TV, radio and festivals a lot."

Sean was just a boy when the events of Bloody Sunday took place in January 1972, something he remembers clearly and which has helped shape his outlook in the arts.

"The Troubles had an impact, absolutely," he says. "It gave us an extraordinary sense of values, priorities, what really matters. The arts transcend our divisions – art spaces are neutral spaces. Our use of the old Unionist Hall in the festival is significant; we're also using churches and cathedrals for musical events you don't associate with religion. This can alter long-standing ways and attitudes. Relationships can be forged by participating in the sheer festival atmosphere. It's very different to going to the theatre in your own environment."

Often employed as a catalyst for change, Mr Doran has been viewed in the world of the arts as an outsider who breaks the mould and pioneers new artistic direction. He is seen as a leader with vision, a risk-taker renowned for merging the challenging with the popular to create exceptional artistic events. He got U2's Bono to participate in his first live show on stage, Conversation (with The Guardian's Robin Denselow in 1995), and opened the literature component of his inaugural Belfast Festival with the Australian icons Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue in 1997.

He commissioned the late film director and writer Anthony Minghella's first opera, Madam Butterfly, when he was Artistic Director of ENO. The production was a peerless critically-acclaimed smash hit and Oscar-winning Minghella, the man behind The English Patient, subsequently had agreed to be the patron for the Enniskillen Beckett Festival – and would have been involved were it not for his sudden tragic death in 2008 from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 54.

It was also Mr Doran's idea to grass London's Trafalgar Square, in preparation for its first ever opera staging in 2004. His most daring and successful audience-development idea of all – so far – was taking English National Opera to the Glastonbury Festival in June 2004, when more than 50,000 popular music fans responded with delight to Act 3 of Richard Wagner's opera The Valkyrie – popularly known as The Ride of the Valkyries, and famously used for the soundtrack for the stunning helicopter attack sequence in the classic film Apocalypse Now. The stuffier powers-that-be at the ENO didn't approve, however, and it lead to Mr Doran's departure.

"I'm always getting into trouble," he smiles slightly. "I broke taboos deliberately in Glastonbury. The ENO stint was fun but I'm not into elites.

"The arts are for everyone – and I want to see people of all backgrounds and ages coming to Enniskillen this month. Beckett is universal."

The Happy Days International Beckett Festival runs in Enniskillen from Thursday to Monday, August 22-26. For details, visit happy-days-enniskillen.com.

The A-list stars heading to the Enniskillen festival

Winona Ryder – the Hollywood actress will be coming to Enniskillen for a number of events throughout the programme with her parents, Cynthia Palmer Horowitz, an author, video producer, and editor, and Michael Horowitz, an author, editor, publisher, antiquarian bookseller.

Sean Doran was introduced to Winona by the American director Robert Wilson, who directed and acted in Krapp's Last Tape, the headline event of the first Beckett festival in 2012. This year he directs Winona in the video portrait A Still Life Is A Real Life, at the Higher Bridges Gallery in the Clinton Centre.

"Winona was recently been filming off the coast of America with Bill Nighy, who gave her a present of Beckett's diaries," says Sean. "Winona's father is a huge Beckett fan. I've got to know her by our many emails; she is very excited about being a part of the festival, as she is also a great admirer of Beckett's work."

Miranda Richardson – best known recently for playing Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter movies and for her various roles in the BBC's Blackadder, the Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning actress is one of the readers in The Tales, a series of 15-30 minute-long festival readings in various locations throughout Enniskillen. Says Sean: "I'm very much looking forward to seeing and hearing Miranda in action on the Thursday and Friday – she's a greatly renowned actress and a joy to be dealing with in the lead-up to the festival."

Juliet Stevenson – Sean met Juliet (unforgettable in Anthony Minghella's Truly Madly Deeply) when he was artistic director of the Belfast Festival at Queen's in 1997. "I got to know Juliet's husband, the anthropologist Hugh Brody, well during my time in Australia (with the Perth Festival) and he'll be accompanying Juliet in this visit. Juliet will be reading Beckett's Worstward Ho on Saturday, August 24, at 6pm.

Julianne Moore (and her mouth ... ) One of the highlights of the festival is sure to be Neil Jordan's arty film-based multi-screen installation of Beckett's Not I, starring acclaimed American actress Julianne Moore.

Jordan – who's currently back directing his hit Borgias series for Sky Atlantic – filmed his interpretation of Not I in complete 13-minute long takes of uninterrupted performance by Moore.

Says Sean: "Neil realised each take had to have its own integrity and so developed his original film version into a multi-screen installation, in which Julianne's mouth appears on six screens arranged in a circular configuration. It's being shown in the Marble Arch Caves before the Inferno reading and Ruby's rendering of Dido's Lament."

Frank Skinner – the festival's comedy programmer Caroline Mabey contacted comedian Frank Skinner on hearing he was a former president of the Samuel Johnston Society. Johnston (along with James Joyce) was a major influence on Beckett in his early years.

"Caroline has put a very attractive single night's comedy together in the festival after Frank's reading that everyone should travel down to on the Sunday evening – Miss Fitt's Sunday Comedy Night at the Enniskillen Hotel. So you can get Frank at 4pm and the comedy evening at 8pm. Frank is also on at 10am on the Sunday morning giving a reading of Beckett's From An Abandoned Work at Portora Royal School.

Adrian Dunbar – the Fermanagh-born star was one of the very first Mr Doran sat down with back in 2007 to talk about the Beckett Festival idea in Enniskillen. "Adrian and his wife, the Australian actress Anna Nygh, did this wonderful early morning reading last year on one of the uninhabited islands on Lower Lough Erne, one of the first festival's most memorable events," he recalls. "Adrian and Anna are doing another early morning one at 7am on the Sunday on Devenish Island. Not to be missed for the lucky 50 people who get the tickets."

Harriet Walter – the Shakespearean actress (also known on screen for Sense And Sensibility), will be reading Beckett's short prose piece Stirrings Still with her actor husband Guy Paul at the Festival on the Sunday.

Clive James – the renowned Australian broadcaster and writer, who is terminally ill with leukaemia, is taking part by video in this year's Writers Programme. James recently published his lifelong project, a translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy. "Clive is very unwell at the moment and not doing live interviews or readings at all," says Sean, "but he was very generous to agree to a live video-link in interview for the festival that will take place in the South West College hall on the Saturday, at 6pm.

Full details on where and when these and other readings will be taking place are available from the festival website.

Belfast Telegraph