Artistic Director Sean Doran talks purgatory, Purcell and Beckett
by Jane Hardy
As the second Happy Days Beckett Festival enters its final phase of preparation, artistic director Sean Doran (52) thinks he knows which stage is purgatory. That’s appropriate as the 2013 festival is mainly about Dante and his influence on Samuel Beckett. Doran says, ‘It’s the quotidian stuff, applying for funding and so on. We’ve been going through the budget since 7.30 this morning which is quite unromantic. We need to keep revising them as there are quite a few devised items this year and pieces we’re realising like Falling (in the servants’ tunnel at Castle Coole, August 22-26), a UK and Irish premiere.’
As Sean Doran adds wryly, art events usually cost a bit more than the estimate. Certainly, ‘they never cost less than you think’.
After the success of the 2012 festival, Doran reckons paradise, in his view rather than Dante’s, might be ‘when you’re starting out and all the audience turn up, but it’s momentary as straight afterwards you’re onto the next festival’.
But there’s no sign of any second album problem in the imaginative programme.
The idea of theming the festival came via a nice coincidence. Sean explains, ‘The first year’s programme emerged artistically from this beautiful island-town and afterwards, I was looking round the Marble Arch Caves in Enniskillen which were like nothing I’d ever seen. I happened to be reading Dante at the same time, since I always read as much as possible to help me choose my direction or alleyway.’
The resulting event, Inferno – into the Caves, which opens the festival, is a trip to this Co Fermanagh underworld. The underground caves provide a perfect backdrop to a performance of Not I, followed by readings from the Inferno and a performance of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera by mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene.
Spectators will have to be intrepid but the descent (and ascent) will be worth it. After a boat trip down, you arrive where three rivers meet – Lucifer’s Anvil, the Guardian Angel and Moses’ Walk. ‘That was a goosebump moment,’ says Sean. ‘It’s perfectly site specific, with the number three recurring as in the two writers.’
Although the links between Beckett and Dante are clear, when one interviewer asked him about why he placed his characters in the Italian poet’s landscape, he said, ‘Quite alien to me, but you’re welcome’.
Doran thinks this was a characteristic Beckett tease. ‘Beckett always hated people asking “What does this mean?” It is what it is but the influence is very major and in his prose collection More Pricks than Kicks, Beckett actually uses Dante’s character Belacqua from the Purgatorio.’ Apparently, when Beckett was dying, the two books on his bedside table were the King James Bible and Dante.
A starry cast has been assembled for Happy Days 2013, with Winona Ryder joining a list of well known actors like Diana Quick and Fiona Shaw to perform Beckett readings. Again, synchronicity attracted the Hollywood star to the project. Sean says, ‘She’s very enthusiastic about being one of the ‘tellers’. I was talking to Bob Wilson the director and Winona appears as Winnie from Happy Days, up to her neck in earth, in one of his video portraits we’re showing. So there was a connection.’
Apparently, Winona’s father is very keen on Beckett and lived in Paris for a while so his daughter is familiar with the work.
Another mildly surprising addition to the programme is Frank Skinner. But there are links – he’s a fan of Dr Johnson, another influence on Mr Beckett, and will be in conversation on August 25, chatting about the great bibliophile and another connection, music hall.
Sean Doran says he hopes there will be a European festival buzz about the town this year, as there was in 2012. A believer in the wider social impact of the arts, Doran, a former manager of the ground-breaking English National Opera, adds, ‘How do you excite people who are not the converted, who think it maybe isn’t for them?’
You include the fun side of Beckett with the Arty Fafternoons for families and funsters (August 23-25). And you listen to your wife. When Sean took singer Ruby Philogene to the caves to check out her set, she loved it after initial misgivings. ‘She thought she’d be cold as she’s Caribbean, but she wasn’t. And when she’d finished the Purcell, she spontaneously sang Amazing Grace.’
They’re keeping it in.