Happy Days International Beckett Festival (day 1)

Photo: Portora Royal Grammar School/ Sophie Barth

The main location of the festival is at the Portora Royal Grammar School in Enniskillen. Some performances are also taking place at the Macmartin’s Cathedral, the Regal, outdoors at the Marble Arch Geopark and at the Ardhowen Theatre. 

I’ve decided for these series of texts that I wrote should be an essay bordering to a review. This is because I have three intentions: 1) look critically at Beckett 2) do research 3) communicate the content of the festival to people who weren’t present. I have yet to uncover the potential of this sort of writing, however, these are attempts in this direction.  

On the first day of the festival all of the programme was located at the Portora Royal Grammar school, and three Beckett plays by choreographer Mark Morris opened this 7th edition of the festival. The three chosen plays were Come and Go, Catastrophe and Quad. Come and Go & Catastrophe were double bills, and Quad played almost right after. 

Come and Go

The entrance leading towards the theatre room. Photo: Sophie Barth

The audience entered a theatre room, one that seemed typical for schools to have – it certainly brought back memories from my school days when we had assemblies. It could also perhaps be a multi-functional room and also serve as a space for gymnastics. However, judging from the construction of the gallery seating section, it is probably mostly used for artistic purposes for by the students. The whole room has a rustic edge to it as it is all made of wood and the ceiling is supported by arches. The atmosphere is welcoming, and we are told that we could sit wherever we wanted. 

The actors entered from an exit door stage left and walk into their positions. Coming from this entrance, it seemed somehow more at level with the audience. Had they come in from another place, from back-stage for instance, then it would perhaps have given us a greater distance from an audience – actor perspective. When the stage light went on, the dim light shone on the three women, exactly as instructed by Beckett. As an audience you are not supposed to pay attention to anything else but the bench and the three women (Flo, Vi & Ru). They were wearing greatcoats and sun hats cover most of their faces. This is also as instructed by Beckett, however, the colours are not the same as the text indicates: ”dull violet, dull red and dull yellow”. I was stuck between thinking whether it is just a detail that is unimportant or if this is something which Beckett would have corrected. Colours matter as they most likely have a visual or narrative significance, which in my opinion should not be overlooked. Beckett is mostly known for his use of greys, and this play stands out in that he has chosen bright colours. The narrative effect it has on the audience could be that it is in some way portraying their personalities, which would otherwise be difficult to graps because of their anonymity under the greatcoats and the hats. They are instead replaced by a visual stimulant which has reduced them to three patches of colour. In my own interpretation from my physical theatre practice, I see the colours that Beckett chose to perhaps be something along these lines:

Yellow: the colour of hope, happiness but which is spontaneous and unstable. Red: the colour of blood and fire, but also energetic and powerful. Violet: the colour of wisdom and dignity but which is also associated with spirituality.

This seems of course to be an opposing element to what’s actually happening in this barely audible play, but it is precisely because of this that colours have such as strong effect.

 The voices were as low as compatible with audibility, and also colourless except for the ”ohs” and the two lines following. This produced the effect that you are listening in on a private conversation. Although the setting and the narrative pattern was relatively simple, the play had a rhythm that drew us into minimal action and forced us to linger there, in the murmurs. The play was successful on achieving this, and as an audience I was left with feeling that Flo, Vi and Ru were hiding something or there was something unsaid. This is what I enjoy when seeing and reading this play. I would have enjoyed a subtler entrance and exit of the stage as to make them move seamlessly into their theatrical narrative, which was broken somehow by them not using the stage wings. 

Mark Morris described in the program that Come and Go “is perfect in that the structure of it is like the infinity sign”, which is crucial to the play and also came across successfully in the production.  

Catastrophe

Straight after Come and Go the set was swiftly transformed into the new set for Catastophe, with two chairs on the lower stage and a black block centre stage. I had recently seen this play at the Atlantic Theatre in New York, so I had it very freshly in mind. The play was written as a tribute to Vaclav Havel who was president of the Czech Republic but also a playwright/writer himself. I had during the same show in New York also the possibility of seeing three Vañek plays, and so this sprang to mind again now when seated at Portora. However, the atmosphere here was quite different as the play stands on its own without any further reference to Havel, and I was forced to start over, to reboot my view on this play. 

The actors come in from the same entrance as in Come and Go, and set the stage whilst the audience was watching. This gave the impression that we were somehow part of the action, and which in this case worked very well. It brought the play to the floor level, the level of the audience. At first it seemed like the actors were not off script, as they had probably some of their script in front of them on sheet music stands. However, it also blended into the play as the setting is a rehearsal and the final touches to the last scene. The director and his assistant were as indicated in the play, and the director was indeed a bold character that gets everything his way without any questions asked. The assistant made a risky move when she asked if she can make suggestions as how “the protagonist” should stand. He accepted, but within his own terms. The highlights of the play were the small comical details such as the director asking for a light for his cigar and gets a flashlight in his face. The lighting designer had no purpose there whatsoever, and couldn’t follow the cues. Instead s/he flashed the light in the director’s face every time he asked for a light, and the comic relief fuels energy to the play which persisted all the way to the end. 

The director had some moments of where he could have exaggerated, almost in a military way. Instead he acted more like a critic, harsh but at a distance. In the play his part is written as an almost vaudevillian comedy, but with a dash of realism. In the midst of his direction, the protagonist/the catastrophe managed to keep its strong imagery and was also the victim of the audience’s gaze. Everyone could observe that something is wrong, but no one said anything. In this way we were indeed complicit to what’s happening on stage. It left me with an aftertaste that is most likely very intentional from Beckett. When the play ended and “the catastrophe” had been fully positioned, he lifted his head just enough for us to see his eyes. This was the most powerful moment of the play, and the feeling of the audience watching but remaining passive returned. Were we to applaud something that we shouldn’t applaud? The play ended, and we exited the room. 

Quad 

Quad viewed from the balcony. Photo: Sophie Barth


The audience came back in after an interval, and we were now allowed to sit or stand in three different places. I chose to place myself in the gallery, as I knew that this is a play that benefits from being seen from above. The floor was marked out as a square (as the title indicates), and in the centre there was a cross (Beckett calls the the “E” point). The whole construction of the Quad also depends on the actors/dancers precise movements to unlock its meaning. Their timing is also essential, and it shifts from being a solo to threes and fours. This changes dynamically during the play, and the square is (almost) never empty. Then they exit after having passed through all the corners of the square. The music is accompanying their speed and gravity, and worked well as to prompt the movements (also in and out of the square). Here Beckett has left it open for interpretation as far as the musical score goes, but he is clear about what instruments should be included: drum, gong, triangle, and wood block. All of them were included, and there were also some wooden claves that prompted an entrance or an exit. The instruments were played by students at the school (guessing from the age and that students volunteered at the festival), and they were all sharp listeners. However, I sometimes wished for something a bit more up-beat, a change of tempo, and perhaps a more experimental approach. The movements of the dancers were precise and their timing was also sensed through the music. They were cloaked so that you could not see their faces properly, at least viewed from above. This created a very interesting effect of them being pieces in a board game.

All of them makes a trajectory were they move counterclockwise and cross from one side to the other, avoiding the gravitational point – the centre. This point should be perceived with a certain sense of danger, which I think the choreography missed. They moved past it, avoiding it but mainly so not to bump into each other. I would have wished that there was more at stake when they met in the centre. Furthermore, Beckett also indicates that the dancers should feel a pull from their centre into the E-point of the square, which would then affect the gravitation and rhythm. Some of the dancers also made long turns on the edges of the square and thus there is something about the square which is broken. It didn’t feel as intact when the shape on the floor was not strictly followed, but the dancers managed nonetheless to do Quad justice.  

The Border – festival opening talk 

It finally struck me that it is no coincidence that the organisers of the festival are called Arts Across Borders, and it was almost with embarrassment that it all came together first at this opening talk. However, this only proves the importance of the opening talk and how useful it was for the whole context of the festival. The key speaker was Diarmaid Ferriter who has just published a book titled “The Border”, which was the headline of this talk as well. For an outsider, coming into this part of Irish history, told from a local perspective made quite an impression. It has to be emphasised that Ferriter is an excellent speaker, and as an historian he manages to give a nuanced image of the history of the Irish border from the 1920s and until today. As he so neatly described it the whole process of negotiating with the British and deciding where the border should be was of a “meandering complexity”. There were “long delays when something had happened or when nothing at all had happened”. He also made an important point when it came to communication, and that many people – in a political context –  expressed different opinions privately than what they did publicly. The main concern is now to break out from the structural traps if the 1920s Ireland – or what started then as has accumulated in complexity since then. Or is it rather a disclaim of responsibility? As it is written in a timeline on the web-site of The Irish Times, the partition of 1921 was only a provisional boundary. The Boundary commission had to meet up later in 1924-25 to fix a permanent border between the two jurisdiction. Ferriter criticised the way this was done, as no one had any real idea of the wishes of the inhabitants, nor if it was compatible with any economic and geographic conditions. There was a consensus in the room when he emphasised the manner in which the Boundary Commission clause was drafted in the Anglo-Irish treaty was only explicit in its ambiguity. 

A sort of “that’ll do” situation where no one really wanted to be in charge. Especially in case of an outbreak of civil war. The British have kept Northern Ireland under their regime for many decades now, however, it seems that little has changed since they decided how many counties should be included in the north. For instance, Donegall is not part of Northern Ireland, although it’s the neighbouring county to Fermanagh where this festival took place. So the key point of the whole border question is: There is a border that is there but not there. This is of course hard to understand from an outside point of view, but once I was physically confronted with these facts by being in Northern Ireland myself, and hearing this talk – I also gained another level of knowledge. I believe that you have to physically understand a place and talk to people living there to get a proper sense of how things are. 

For instance, post-talk it struck us (my father and I) that we had indeed been crossing this invisible border without even thinking about it. Upon our arrival, we took the bus from Dublin to Enniskillen and thus also taking almost the same route that Beckett did during his school days (although he came from further south, at Foxrock). 

Hearing and participating as an audience member in this talk made us see Beckett in a whole other light, one that was there but previously invisible to us. Beckett could in fact be a “citizen of the border”, living in a time with great political gaps that were in many cases unsolvable. This could only lead to confusion, in a situation that’s spiraling into the inexplicable. There are simply stories within stories and you are not getting into the centre of it, because there might not be an answer. We discovered a parallel to this in how people talk, as we had to shift our ways of going about asking for directions (as an example). We were told one bit of information which then led to more during a longer conversation, a spiraling way of getting the answer that we were seeking. First when the third version of the story was told did we truly grasp the message behind it, what was really being said. We learned something important whilst being confronted with this: sometimes you can’t get answers quickly, and following an online map with no sense of self-navigation doesn’t always work. You need to talk to other people, and use language attentively. This way of communicating was a very activating factor to us, and we found that this sort of inter-human contact is also what is put to the question in many of Beckett’s work. Added onto that there is the notion of dwelling, of waiting to uncover a truth that is not yet visible. We need to dwell in order to know – if we speed up with might not leave with the information we need.