Friday 19 January 2018

Stage: When darkness falls at the Happy Days festival

Max Stafford Clark, the director of All That Fall
Max Stafford Clark, the director of All That Fall
Beckettian carnival: The Enniskillen festival runs from July 23 and features a host of shows

Maggie Armstrong

Poor Sam Beckett will get no rest under his simple tombstone in Montparnasse. For Happy Days, the Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, is back, with all manner of Beckettian carnival in preparation in the town where the Nobel Laureate went to boarding school. Plays performed on ruins, beaches, in pubs, a cricket match, even biscuits with Beckett's face on them. Grave turning must be regular for the playwright, who was fiercely and litigiously protective of his work, a tradition the Samuel Beckett estate has carried through.

This year's more offbeat productions include Warten auf Godot by the Berliner Ensemble; Beckett's women, a kind of remix of, yes, the women from Beckett's plays; and All that Fall, Beckett's 1957 radio play, directed by Max Stafford-Clarke, a leading British director. The cast, including Rosaleen Linehan, will perform in pitch darkness, the audience will wear masks.

Beckett wrote All that Fall in the summer of 1956 for BBC radio. "In the dead of t'other night I got a nice gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something," he wrote to a friend. So came the comi-tragic story of Maddy Rooney, an old woman who treks out to meet her blind husband at a train station.

"I was delighted to get the rights, because he had refused both Ingmar Bergman and Laurence Olivier the rights to stage the play in his lifetime," says Max Stafford-Clarke during rehearsals.

Edward Beckett, Sam's nephew and the executor of his estate, had written to Max, asking: "What is your vision for the play?"

Max replied: "I have absolutely no vision for the play."

The director told Edward it would be performed in darkness - and this satisfied Beckett's nephew.

Max, who, like Beckett, attended Trinity College, knew Beckett towards the end of his life in the 1980s, when Max was director of the Royal Court Theatre. He remembers a generous old man with a strong Irish accent who would "go to the pub and talk to the stage hands for hours about cricket and rugby. He wasn't interested in talking about the work at all". But also a man exasperated in his efforts to protect his legacy. "I met him and Arthur Miller within two weeks of each other, and both of them talked about the impossibility of controlling productions of their work. There had been a production set on a subway train and Beckett had contemplated taking out a court order to stop the play. Policing the productions was a nightmare for him."

The play must have been Endgame, in 1984, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Beckett and his US agents objected to it being staged across a derelict subway car, as well as to the music proposed, and - this is harder to take - to the casting of two black actors. Beckett was never racist, and apparently objected to the skin colour of the actors only because it added a dimension to the play he had not intended. Avoiding legal action, Beckett disowned the play, stating so in a programme note.

Later, he tried to ban all productions of his plays in The Netherlands, objecting to women being cast as men - gender-bending has been a particular bugbear of the estate.

Max feels like Beckett is breathing down his neck throughout this endeavour. "He's present," he says "We did cut three lines yesterday, and I felt his beam of disapproval coming down on me."

The stage directions of All that fall are meticulous, Max points out. The text is cluttered with adverbs instructing how the characters are to speak their lines. ("brokenly", "bitterly", "forcibly", "testily", "resignedly", "reasonably", "derisively".)

"He's a control freak, no question of it," says Max.

Could Beckett really have imagined the play in darkness? "I hope he would have approved. I've endeavoured to be as loyal to him as I can," says Max, though black-out is "a solution which has yet to be tried within the audience". One thinks of Beckett's famous, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better", when Max adds, "That's what's humiliating about being a director, is the perpetual process of learning. You never know, you only learn."

Happy Days runs July 23 to August 3 in Enniskillen

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