Is…is this thing on?
A man bursts out the back of the ruined chapel and runs to one of the distantly-parked vans. He disappears inside, and it rocks, as if he’s turfing everything out in exactly the same way I ransacked every drawer in the house while hunting for my passport a few days ago.
Then he’s out again, and running down the roadside towards us, towards the four dozen of us stood patiently by the bus that brought us here, waiting to hear what happens next, and whether we’re going to see the play we were promised. He grins apologetically as he weaves through us, his expression saying, “I know, I know, lunacy, right?” – and into the front door of the church he goes. Silence falls again.
We’re here to see the Ceithleann Island Theatre Company’s (English) world premiere of Samuel Beckett’s “Catastrophe“ – and the power of live performance has struck.
When I was a young lad, I went to see the Scottish band Del Amitri play a gig at Hull City Hall.
They weren’t very good.
Not because the music wasn’t great. Not because they didn’t have charisma, or because the crowd hated them. It was because their sound engineers messed the whole thing up. The lead guitarist spent a lot of time facing the amplifier behind him, because otherwise he couldn’t hear himself play. Lead singer Justin Currie kept aiming furious throat-cutting gestures off-stage to get the volume lowered. It was an unholy din, and the band knew it. Everything was turned up too loud because the sound setup was mapped all wrong across the stage and was pulsing out to the audience in an ugly wash of noise you felt like a hand round your throat.
And when the band stopped playing and went for a visibly disgruntled break, when that wall of sound stopped hammering against us and silence fell – we all clapped our hands to our ears. Ever seen a Mexican Wave at a football match? It was like that. We all grabbed the sides of our heads – because without that pressure pounding against our eardrums, it suddenly felt like our heads were trying to explode.
In between the sound faults and the exploding heads, Del Amitri were great. They usually were. But what I remember about that gig was what went wrong, and how overwhelmingly live that made it feel, how raw and filled with uncertainty, the very opposite of safe, predictable and manufactured. Anything could have happened – and unfortunately for Del Amitri, the worst did.
The man runs out the front door of the chapel. The smile is gone. His face looks strained and he doesn’t meet anyone’s eye as he hares back up the road. Other crew members look tight-lipped. Things aren’t looking good.
Finally, wringing her hands and looking deeply upset, our guide addresses us.
“We’re nearly there – it should be another 15 minutes. We totally understand if you all decide you want a refund, you’ve been waiting half an hour already, it’s only a short drive back into Enniskillen, and we’re nearly there but if you don’t want to wait…well, I’ll leave that decision in your hands. Do you want to wait?”
We all decide to wait.
This summer, I’m joining a bunch of intrepid travel bloggers in shedding light on some of the best lesser-known festivals in Europe. The project is called Must Love Festivals, and it’s masterminded by Kash Bhattacharya of the site Budget Traveller. The rest of the team are:
Frankie (As the Bird Flies)
Abigail (Inside The Travel Lab)
Kate (Adventurous Kate)
Michael (Time Travel Turtle)
Sophie (Sophie on Track)
Sebastian (Off The Path)
Dylan (The Travelling Editor)
Victoria and Steve (Bridges and Balloons)
Bethany and Randy (Beers & Beans)
Peter (Travel Unmasked)
and Alex and Ben (Hejorama).
With the support of online travel giant Expedia and a huge number of tourist boards (see the base of this post) we’re going in search of the stories of festivals and the stories within them, and we’ll be trying to show you why it should be you there instead of us. For my part, I’m covering two festivals: the Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen, Ireland, devoted to the life and works of Samuel Beckett . . . and the Museumsuferfest (Museum Embankment Festival) stretching over 3 days at the end of August in Frankfurt, Germany.
In every case, we’ll all be looking for those things that only happen at live performances, the thrilling, chaotic, serendipitous events that burst into life when artists of all kinds get out of their studios (and their comfort zones) and pluck up the courage to perform for their audience with no guarantee of getting it right first time.
That’s what we’re after – because that’s why festivals are special.
Another five minutes of waiting – and suddenly, they’re ready.
We’re quickly ushered into the chapel. It’s dark inside, few signs that it’s the middle of the day, and when we’ve taken our seats and the door closes behind us, the illusion is complete. There is nothing but the play. We haven’t minded waiting – because, that’s what can happen at these things, right? In a few days I’ll grab a moment with the play’s director, the actor Adrian Dunbar, and he’ll explain that the generator that’s powering the lights became flooded with diesel and refused to start. The other performances over the next 3 days will all go without a hitch. We’re the ones that have lucked out – and yet, as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter when we’re waiting and it doesn’t matter when the play starts. Because that’s the magic of live.*
And “Catastrophe”? It’s a short, bleak, powerful allegory about…well, I think Beckett would have preferred you made your own mind up about that – and involves one character puffing on a cigar, sending clouds of smoke drifting over our heads. And we can smell it. The air we’re breathing is part of this performance. This isn’t something being electronically piped in – it’s really happening, right here.
And that’s more than worth the wait.
* The actors and production crew may have felt a little differently at the time.
Further Reading: “The Power Of Live” – Must Love Festivals
Must Love Festivals is brought to you by Budget Traveller, with lead partner Expedia, and in association with Ireland.com, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Puglia Events, Visit Finland, Malta Tourism Authority, I Feel Slovenia, Rotterdam Festivals, Germany Tourism, Eurail, Den Haag Marketing, Austria Tourism, Generator Hostels and Meininger Hotels.