The world's first Samuel Beckett festival: Well worth waiting for

The festival unexpectedly revealed the playwright's lighter side

In Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, last Bank Holiday weekend, you could have yourself a "Beckett" haircut, buy an Endgame sandwich (ham-and-clove filling), watch a game of rugby contesting the Samuel Beckett Muckball Cup – the playwright's desiccated Krapp calls the Earth "a muckball" – and hear Antonia Fraser talk about one of the handsomest men she ever met.

The occasion was the first Enniskillen International Beckett Festival in the town where the young budding writer and outstanding sportsman went to school in the early 1920s – the same school, Portora Royal, as Oscar Wilde attended 50 years earlier.

This obsession with sport, which Beckett maintained all his life, certainly explains the athleticism paradoxically required to perform his notoriously static and downbeat plays.

"Bend it like Beckett" was indeed the weekend's theme as games were played all over town – except, unfortunately, the Didi and Gogo cricket match between artists and critics ("sewer rat, cretin, critic" exclaim the insult-trading tramps in Waiting for Godot), which was cancelled due to a waterlogged pitch – and festival-goers rushed like blue-arsed flies between venues for scraps of pith and pessimism.

In Portora's school hall, a woman's mouth, that of the actress Lisa Dwan, jabbered elastically and unforgettably for 10 minutes in Not I. Later, on the other side of town, avant-garde director Robert Wilson delivered a beautifully stylish and balletic Krapp's Last Tape, peeling his banana with studied intensity and gawping at his own past like a shock-haired amalgam of Buster Keaton and Dr Caligari.

For it was the brilliant and original notion of the Happy Days weekend ("Oh, this is going to be another happy day," witters Winnie, buried to her waist in rubble) that Beckett, whose characters rage against the dying of the light in a monochrome vacuum, or hellhole, should be revealed as an artist tinged with myriad lighter touches, a playful humourist ("the greatest Irish humourist since Swift" proclaimed Beckett biographer James Knowlson), music-lover, serial polygamist, an unrivalled ace punster, influential visual and technical innovator.

People turned out in droves to hear Will Self, face like a concave loofah, say that he was far more influenced by Joyce than by Beckett; and Lady Antonia define the happiest of marriages (that of Harold Pinter and herself) as one containing the jolliest of disagreements. Edna O'Brien, who gave an elegant and revealing introductory talk, floated fragrantly through the events accompanied by her son, the distinguished writer and film-maker Carlo Gebler, who lives locally.

In some ways, this was an anti-festival, just as Beckett's highly theatrical plays are anti-plays, his limpid, Modernist writing also anti-Modernist. How surprising was it that David Soul, of all people, should suddenly appear, virtually unannounced, in the chapel at Portora School to read the prose piece, "Fizzle 2", confessing that, while the rest of his body closed down, he was still throwing the javelin at 40, striking Usain Bolt's victory sign of a sculptured trajectory?

And in a darkened square room behind the Catholic cathedral (which is right across the road from the Protestant church), the audience sat in rocking chairs listening to the radio play All That Fall, one of Beckett's funniest pieces, and one of the few specifically located around Dublin.

This play, which concerns a trip to the local station and the discovery of a child's body on the line, was first broadcast by the BBC in the same year, 1957, as the railway was discontinued to Enniskillen, an example of the weird serendipity behind so much of the festival.

Its founder and artistic director, Seán Doran, a Derry man who has produced major festivals in Australia, resigned from running the English National Opera in London 10 years ago when the board insisted he should produce Kismet (which turned out disastrously) instead of Merce Cunningham dancing in Morton Feldman's one-act opera Neither – with a text by Samuel Beckett.

It's a cliché to say that Beckett is the ultimate writer of light and dark, but I'd never experienced the truth of this so intensely before as in this All That Fall (a play soon to be staged with visible actors – Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon – in London); or indeed as at a remarkable installation by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, Texts (Waiting for–) for Nothing, in which long strips of illuminated words can only be read at a certain distance and which, close up, look like braille in darkened relief against a black wall.

Robert Wilson's Krapp's Last Tape, in its European premiere, was entirely conceived in black and white and grey. It opened with the most tremendous thunder clap, an explosion, followed by a torrential rain burst indicated by fluvial stair rods running down the white spines of a virtual library.

One of the most haunting of conventional Krapps, John Hurt, could be discerned on video in a forest of 35mm travelling celluloid in film-maker Atom Egoyan's Steenbeckett (2002), an outrageous variation, while, across the corridor, Krapp's office gathered dust and memorabilia, and an overpowering sense of loneliness and desolation.

Beckett's working title for Krapp's Last Tape was "The Magee Monologue" in honour of the legendary Irish actor for whom he was writing it, Patrick Magee, so it was only just, in a witty piece of programming, that one of the country's greatest folk fiddlers, Tommy Peoples, should tell us about his life and his music while listening to his old recordings in a show called The Peoples Monologue.

Back in the school hall, the issue of whether Beckett was a French or Irish writer was deliciously skipped by a French puppeteer performing the wordless Act without Words I.

Out of town on the Castle Coole estate, the servants' quarters were invaded by Beckettian ghosts, the strained voices of actors Barry McGovern and Natasha Parry emerging from pots and pans while a bizarre mash-up of extracts from the novel Molloy and The Pirates of Penzance emanated from a phonograph in the hallway.

In the grand yard at Coole stood a gleaming stainless steel tree by Antony Gormley, which will be weathered in the notoriously wet Enniskillen climate before returning in 2014 as the scenic totem in an Aboriginal Australian-Irish co-production of Beckett's most famous play, Waiting for Godot. Sounds like more kangaroo sport, sport.

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone