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Adrian Dunbar on Beckett: ‘I seemed to be getting knocked around emotionally but didn’t know how he was doing it’

For Beckett: Unbound 2024, the actor has teamed up with the composer Nick Roth to stage a festival of the writer’s work in Paris and Liverpool

Samuel Beckett and Paris. The two go together like Lucky and Pozzo. It’s the city where the writer spent much of his adult life, where a street is named after him, where he was stabbed by a pimp outside La Santé prison, where he was a permanent fixture in Left Bank cafes, where he strolled with James Joyce along the leafy Île aux Cygnes, and where he died and is buried, beside his wife, Suzanne, in Montparnasse Cemetery.

But Beckett and Liverpool? It’s a more tangential connection, forged through Beckett: Confined 2022 and Beckett: Unbound 2024, two intriguing networks of mixed-genre events, emanating from the writer’s work and located between the two cities. They are the results of a burgeoning partnership between the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Unreal Cities, a multidisciplinary arts project founded in 2020 by the actor and director Adrian Dunbar and the saxophonist and composer Nick Roth.

The name Unreal Cities echoes one of the most memorable lines in TS Eliot’s great poem The Waste Land. Eliot, in turn, had taken it from Les Fleurs du Mal, by the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. It amounts to a trio of artistic influences that reflects the company’s declared creative ethos of the power of three.

“The name comes directly from The Waste Land, as that was the first time that Nick and I collaborated together, at the Happy Days Festival in Enniskillen,” says Dunbar. “We realised that it was a production that we could take further, that could have another life. It went to the Hay Festival and to Alexandria in Egypt, and has had a series of lives since then.”


Dunbar is speaking from Leitrim, where he and Roth have been rehearsing his new version of the radio play All That Fall, for Beckett: Unbound, and A Fool’s Errand, a touring piece inspired by Dermot Healy’s epic poem about the annual migration of barnacle geese between Greenland and Co Sligo. It brings together music, text and painting and is delivered by the actor Lalor Roddy, the painter Diarmuid Delargy and three musicians.

Dunbar and Roth are the curators of both Beckett: Confined and Beckett: Unbound. The first traced the writer’s ability to close and unravel spaces across and between genres, locations and environments, and examined his “politics of confinement”. This time around, building on the success of the 2022 event, they have assembled another tantalising rattle bag of new work and variations on existing pieces.

‘Adrian [Dunbar] came up with the idea and title of Beckett: Unbound, the inverse of the confinement theme. It’s explosive and communicates with instant energy. It signalled a welcome release after the tension of the lockdowns’

—  Composer Nick Roth

Beckett: Unbound kicks off in Liverpool on May 30th and, in association with the Irish Cultural Centre, moves to Paris on June 5th. It is structured around a challenging mix of theatre, music, film, dance, photography and discussion, with the central focus on Beckett’s untrammelled fascination with communication and the technological traversals of time and distance.

The company’s partnership with the University of Liverpool was instigated by Prof Peter Shirlow, director of the university’s Institute of Irish Studies, to whom Dunbar was introduced by family members. Shirlow, formerly deputy director of the Institute for Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast, had attended several events produced by Unreal Cities and invited the company to present some work by Beckett in Liverpool.

“His department is constantly looking at ways of opening itself out into the city, which has a big Irish community,” says Dunbar. “I spoke to Nick, and we started to think about what we had to hand that we could put together, maybe in the form of a small festival. I already had my productions of Catastrophe and Ohio Impromptu, and Nick had some new music. Given what was going on at the time with the pandemic, the theme of confinement just presented itself.”

“It was just after Covid, so everyone was used to the idea of being closed in,” says Roth. “I curated the music programme, and we also made a new film with music. It was a great success, and we were asked to come back the following year and do it again. But we felt that to do it annually was too much, so we suggested a biennale, which would give us more time to commission new work and effectively bring everything together.

“Adrian came up with the idea and title of Beckett: Unbound, the inverse of the confinement theme. It’s explosive and communicates with instant energy. It signalled a welcome release after the tension of the lockdowns. In that highly charged spirit of energy and breaking free, we commissioned four new works: a dance piece, two musical compositions and a film.”

The first of the two music world premieres is Kevin Volans’s Quad, a string-quintet transcription of the movement sequences embedded in Beckett’s eponymous television play, which, at the time of its 1984 publication, was described as a ballet for four people. The second is Mouth, a solo percussion transcription by Simon Roth in response to Beckett’s evocative Not I/Pas moi monologue, which Clara Simpson will perform back to back in French and English. The piece explores the sonic semantics of Billie Whitelaw’s famous 1973 delivery of the piece, in which she heard what she called her own “inner scream”.

‘We wanted to include dance on the programme to mix up the disciplines. We try to diversify as much as possible, so we thought that to include a dance component would be exciting’

—  Nick Roth

Sentient is a new dance piece from the choreographer Liz Roche, in collaboration with Roth and the French composer and performer Nathalie Forget. This full-length work for six dancers picks up on a passage in Beckett’s novel Molloy, where the narrator expresses wonder for the movement of his bees: “I often thought of my bees… And I thought above all of their dance, for my bees danced oh not as men dance, to amuse themselves, but in a different way.”

“We wanted to include dance on the programme to mix up the disciplines,” says Roth. “We try to diversify as much as possible, so we thought that to include a dance component would be exciting. I’ve long been an admirer of Liz Roche’s work and had discussed with her various ideas for new pieces. In 2014 I did a residency at the [Irish Cultural Centre] and met Nathalie Forget, who plays the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument. She lent me a book about Beckett and animals, which contained an essay about the dance of the bees in Molloy. Bees use dance to communicate, a thought I shared with Liz. That’s where the piece started. Thinking about the score, I loved the idea of the hum of the bees, and that brought in Nathalie and the opportunity to co-score together. Again, the power of three.”

The theatre programme features two French-language productions from the distinguished pairing of the actor Denis Lavant and director Jacques Osinski. They will bring their highly praised version of Krapp’s Last Tape (La Dernière Bande) to Liverpool, for its UK premiere, while Endgame (Fin de Partie) will begin a five-week run at Théâtre de l’Atelier, in Montmartre.

The inclusion of Schubert’s String Quartet No 14 in All That Fall is one of only two directions Beckett gave for a specific composition. A new sound design by Roth frames Dunbar’s reimagining of the original radio play, whose dark, relentless climax contrasts sharply with the slapstick humour of its early scenes. It will be performed by Orla Charlton, Anna Nygh, Frank McCusker, Vincent Higgins, Stanley Townsend and Frankie McCafferty.

‘I first engaged with [Beckett] when I was at drama school in London. I did a couple of Beckett pieces there, which I found fascinating because I couldn’t understand how he was able to get you to an emotional place by some kind of legerdemain’

—  Adrian Dunbar

Roth mentions his friend James Little, a jazz musician and Beckett scholar, whose book Samuel Beckett in Confinement: The Politics of Closed Space examines Beckett’s work in prisons. He says that it breathed new life into a previously slumbrous Unreal Cities project, which here comes to fruition in the shape of Rough for Radio II, a radio play written in French as Pochade Radiophonique and translated into English by Beckett shortly before its broadcast by BBC Radio 3 in 1976. This version has been recorded by inmates at HM Prison Liverpool, directed by Vincent Higgins in collaboration with Simon Duding of Tipp, an organisation that delivers arts projects within the criminal-justice system.

Dunbar, who is from Enniskillen, the Co Fermanagh town where Beckett went to boarding school, concedes that, subconsciously, his connection to the writer goes back a lifetime.

“Yeah, I guess he’s always been there. I first engaged with him when I was at drama school in London. I did a couple of Beckett pieces there, which I found fascinating because I couldn’t understand how he was able to get you to an emotional place by some kind of legerdemain. I couldn’t get past him as a sort of magician, because I seemed to be getting knocked around the place emotionally but I didn’t know how he was doing it.

“Then came Happy Days, where Nick and I met and where, over the years, I did a number of productions. When I was at the Irish Cultural Centre I got to know Paris a bit better and then I did the BBC documentary Searching for Sam and went down to Roussillon, in the south of France, where he had lived. There I got a real sense of his physical journey, and that took me closer to him again.”

Roth’s first encounter with Beckett was at Happy Days 2014, when his ensemble did an intervention on a production of Waiting for Godot in Yiddish, a piece that, coincidentally, Dunbar had seen in New York and brought to Enniskillen. He also worked with Conor Lovett and Stephen Dillane on Gare St Lazare Ireland’s six-hour film of Beckett’s How It Is.

“The idea of coincidence and synergy and things kind of happening are important threads in our work,” says Roth. “It feels like an affirmation that you’re on the right path. That’s why curating this festival takes two years, bringing everything together and folding in all the layers. We are trying to make a holistic programme, where all the parts are talking to each other and the resonances build between them.”

“One of the things that we strongly believe is that art is simply seeing the connection between things,” says Dunbar. “People who see the connection between people are artists. We’re constantly looking to see what those connections are, or might be, and then making them happen. That’s the transformative thing that makes a piece of work, but it only starts to happen by connecting. You have to find out where the allusions are, where they come together, and then you can start out to make something that’s whole. When you start to get a sense of it all coming together, it’s a brilliant feeling. It allows everyone a place in the work.”

Beckett: Unbound 2024 runs from Thursday, May 30th, to Friday, June 7th