Playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) embracing actor Jack McGowan at a first night performance, 1970. Photo: Getty
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Mark Lawson: Happy days in the town of Samuel Beckett’s childhood

For the past three years, an international Beckett festival in Enniskillen has attempted to establish a more positive Google footprint alongside the one established by the IRA bombing at the town’s cenotaph in 1987.

The three most obvious locations for a festival devoted to Samuel Beckett (1906-89) would be Dublin (his birthplace), Paris (where he lived for most of his adult life) and Nowhere, which is broadly the setting for plays such as Waiting for Godot and Happy Days. However, the writer attended Portora Royal School in the Northern Irish town of Enniskillen and, for the past three years, an international Beckett festival there has attempted to establish a more positive Google footprint alongside the one established by the IRA bombing massacre at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day in 1987.

The Nobel Prize-winner’s ghost might be bemused by barbershops offering “Beckett haircuts” – a tight crop, ideally steel-grey – but he would surely have enjoyed a rare ironic and allusive use of the words “Happy Days” on the front of a tourist brochure. And the festival, directed by Sean Doran, a former artistic director of English National Opera, attends inventively to his legacy, with the addition of some new elements – an imported international star, an irregular venue – to work that is likely to be familiar to the target clientele.

This year, Klaus Maria Brandauer made his Irish stage debut in Krapp’s Last Tape. His use of a German text (with English surtitles) had the effect, for an anglophone audience, of directing attention away from the two sets of words – the 69-year-old Krapp in his den, listening to a diary he recorded as a love-struck young man – and towards Beckett’s vivid visual sense, emphasised by Brandauer’s startling, clown-like appearance, with wings of fly­away hair, a swollen drinker’s nose and oversize boots.

My initial reaction was that the actor had sartorially elided Krapp with the dress sense of the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot but a later check of the text revealed that he was dressed exactly as specified: perhaps a sensible precaution, as the author’s nephew and executor, Edward Beckett, was in town and the estate has been known to block productions that subvert the words even slightly.

Brandauer also makes the greatest verbal distinction I have heard between the older voice – a high, second-childhood whine – and the strutting younger one. Under the direction of Peter Stein, this was probably the most surprising revelation to come out of Northern Ireland since Rory McIlroy.

The minimalism of late Beckett necessitates some cunning extension of running times. The hour allocated to the world premiere of the English-language version of Catastrophe included a mystery coach tour, winding high through the hills of County Fermanagh, passing through villages where Union flags were punctuated by Irish tricolours. A local told me that Israeli and Palestinian flags have also been flown, the loyalist and republican communities respectively siding with what they see as tribes whose plight echoes their own.

Eventually we arrived at Pubble Church, a disused place of worship dating back more than 1,000 years. On the abandoned altar, a cast under the direction of the Enniskillen-born actor Adrian Dunbar (best known, perhaps, for Line of Duty) played the slight but resonant Catastrophe, which involves the final touches to a human sculpture.

As The Complete Dramatic Works contains only 32 pieces, some barely a minute long, a festival entirely dedicated to Beckett would soon run out of material, so Doran has broadened the programme with works such as Roaratorio, a sound-and-dance piece by John Cage and Merce Cunningham, which was suggested by Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a book also echoed in Beckett.

In future years, I would like to see some exploration of Beckett’s perhaps surprising level of influence on British TV sitcoms. The writer David Renwick has acknowledged that the dramatist was an inspiration for the fascination with the boredom of daily existence that underlies One Foot in the Grave and specifically for an episode in which Victor Meldrew is, like Winnie in Happy Days, buried up to his neck.

Happy Days is also the name of the American TV comedy series but that title is non-ironic and can’t be attributed to the former Enniskillen student.

 

Quick suffix

Reports on both the Islamic State jihadists in Iraq and the so-called Trojan Horse plot to impose hardline Muslim teaching in Birmingham schools have featured much use of the word “Islamist” to describe the ideology of the agitators. The term suggests that their behaviour and beliefs are a perversion of the Islamic faith.

Linguistically, though, the usage seems confused. A Marxist is someone who follows the teachings of Marx and a feminist believes in female equality but an Islamist is someone who has deviated from Islam.

What the linguistic police mean is “Islam-ish” but that sounds comically reductive, recalling Jonathan Miller’s joke about being “Jew-ish”. However, the problems of avoiding offence were shown when a BBC reporter recently referred to “Islamist fundamentalists”, a construction in which the same suffix is employed to suggest that they aren’t the former but are the latter. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.