Hay Festival Kells, Part 1: Reflections on Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Sometimes it feels as if Michael Harding was born at the age of 58, middle-aged and fully-formed. A performer, an actor, a novelist, a memoirist and a playwright, he has come to inhabit that great unfathomable of the popular consciousness only over the past few years.

Staring At Lakes, his first memoir, a chronicle of depression and love and the jagged line between the two, won the Irish Book of the Year award in 2013. It was followed by Hanging With The Elephant last year and a weekly Irish Times column about life in the Irish midlands. From Cavan, his prose has echoes of the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh from neighbouring Monaghan, recognising beauty “in the habitual, the banal”.

Continue reading “Hay Festival Kells, Part 1: Reflections on Michael Harding”

Hay Festival Kells Reflections: Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s impossible play

The first ever Hay Festival Kells is already a receding memory – but what a memory. Massive congratulations to all involved in putting together a spectacular three days in the Co Meath town.

I live a hen’s race from Kells, but I feel duty-bound to insist that such proximity brings no bias here. By any measure this was a phenomenal success, and one which, I can only hope, will become a regular part of the Irish summer calendar for many a year to come.

This is the first of a couple of posts I’m planning reflecting on last weekend’s events. I also attended the John Banville interview and the poetry reading by Frank McGuinness and Nerys Williams, so I’ll offer my thoughts on those separately.

Lisa Dwan Not I Samuel BeckettIt was a privilege, on the first day of the first ever Hay Festival to take place in Ireland, to share a pitch-black room with a couple of hundred others and the brightly lit mouth of Lisa Dwan.

It’s not often that something this vibrant happens in rural Co Meath. For it to happen before the early evening news, as just one small part of an overall programme, underlines the breadth of the ambition of the Hay Festival on its welcome first foray into Ireland.

“Mouth”, the only character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Not I”, has been described as the most difficult role in all of theatre, and during ten frantic minutes in Kells it was easy to see why.

Not having seen “Not I” before – the extent of my exposure was some pre-performance reading outlining Beckett’s fury when Jessica Tandy, the first actress to perform the role in 1972, took a leisurely 22 minutes to run through the script.

Beckett’s muse Billie Whitelaw subsequently knocked that back to a distinctly more rapidfire 14 minutes, but Dwan has continued the constriction by reducing the time to less than 10 minutes, which increases the verbal dexterity required.

The show included an entertaining and insightful video transmission of Whitelaw’s recollections of working with Beckett. Sample: “He wrote me a note to say, ‘On page eight, six lines down, remove a dot. It should be two dots instead of three.’”

Such was the precision of Beckett’s notes and stage direction that, as Dwan said during the Q&A with Telegraph journalist Liz Hunt which followed this performance, it is extraordinarily difficult for a director to direct Beckett. And that difficulty is magnified to an extreme level in “Not I”, in which the only lit element in an expanse of darkness (Emergency exit lights? Forget it…) is a mouth, a mouth that utters a virtually incomprehensible stream of consciousness. And also a mouth suspended exactly eight feet above the stage.

The speed of expression is so incredibly rapid that it’s almost impossible, on first experience at any rate, to comprehend anything but occasional words and turns of phrase.

It is, as Dwan wrote in the festival-accompanying leaflet published by The Telegraph, as close to unlearnable as any role in theatre can be, and one that leaves her body in spasm throughout the performance as she engages in the unwinnable battle of trying to speak at the speed of thought. All without acting. (Another Beckett note.)

The melody shines through, as does deep admiration for the performance, and while one can’t help regretting that it’s difficult to make any satisfying sense of it all, then life is a bit like that too.

As Whitelaw says about Beckett, he had absolute and unimpeachable integrity. Avoiding cosy characters or setpieces did not go far enough. In treating of the world, he had to go all the way, instilling the inherent ridiculousness of the human experience. Dwan says her ambition is to fulfil this quest. “I’m not there yet,” she says. She admits that it’s unlikely she ever will be, but then again none of this is about success.

She can try again, fail again, fail better, and that’s the best any of us can do.

Indeed, art and failure was another theme in the Banville hour, about which more later…

Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the text of “Not I”, as I was before last Friday, it’s over here.

Colum McCann was clearly a standout speaker at Hay Festival Cartagena

Colum_McCannOne of the most eagerly awaited literary launches of 2013 will surround Colum McCann. His eighth novel, Transatlantic, is expected to arrive on the bookshelves, literary and virtual, sometime around June.

It’s his first book since Let the Great World Spin won plaudits all over the globe in 2009, its garlands including the Irish Book of the Year, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award … and, if I recall correctly, the Liveline with Joe Duffy panel selection.

McCann’s name started whizzing around Twitter on Thursday night during a talk he was giving at the Columbian offshoot of the Hay Festival – Hay Cartagena.

Below is a sample of what he was talking about. (If you’d like to hear more from Colum McCann, he reads his own story “Transatlantic” over at the New Yorker podcast from last year. The Amazon description, which references Alcock and Brown, would suggest that the new book is a novel-length version of the story.)

Love that last one. Sure it’s not true, but the sentiment is unmistakable…