‘An exceptional experience’: Adrian Dunbar to curate Samuel Beckett festival in Liverpool

<span>‘I follow him blindly’ … Adrian Dunbar on Samuel Beckett. </span><span>Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer</span>
‘I follow him blindly’ … Adrian Dunbar on Samuel Beckett. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Adrian Dunbar is to curate a festival in Liverpool dedicated to the work of Samuel Beckett. The programme includes four specially commissioned productions, one involving prisoners at HMP Liverpool.

The Line of Duty actor said of Beckett: Unbound 2024: “Engaging with Beckett makes you think about the fundamentals of life. Those fundamentals are sometimes hard to engage with, but at the end, when he drives everything to a conclusion, he also makes you feel something that is liberating.”

“I follow him blindly,” said Dunbar, who is now in rehearsals for Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican in London. “He’s like a secular saint to me.”

Taking place at venues including The Reservoir in Toxteth, Beckett: Unbound 2024 is a multiarts festival that juxtaposes familiar pieces by the Dublin-born author with new responses to his work. After Liverpool, the productions will transfer to Paris.

Having grown up in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, where Beckett went to school, Dunbar further developed his interest in the author as a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. In 2012, he became involved with the Happy Days - Enniskillen international Beckett festival, where he directed productions of Beckett’s Catastrophe and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Two years ago, Dunbar and co-curator Nick Roth programmed the three-day Beckett: Confined 2022 festival for the University of Liverpool’s institute of Irish studies. Beckett: Unbound 2024 continues where they left off.

Dunbar, who presented the BBC Two programme Searching for Sam in 2022, said “After lockdown, the confined theme worked so well for audiences and it also worked well for Beckett. Now that we’re post-Covid, we can open it up and look at other aspects of Beckett’s work.”

The festival will include Dunbar’s production of All That Fall at the atmospheric site of the former Park Hill reservoir in Toxteth. Written for radio, the play exploits the medium to the full; the team responsible for the sound effects in the original production in the mid-1950s went on to become the nucleus of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. To reflect the play’s origins, Dunbar’s actors will perform out of sight of the audience, who will also listen to a string quartet playing Schubert’s Death and the Maiden in the dark.

“You’ll be listening like you’re in the radio,” said Dunbar. “It’ll be an exceptional experience.”

At the Everyman theatre, Irish choreographer Liz Roche will present Sentient, a full-length work for six dancers, featuring Nathalie Forget playing the ondes Martenot, an early electronic keyboard. The performance is based on a passage about dancing bees in Beckett’s novel Molloy.

“When you have ideas that move away from the written pieces, it’s perfectly acceptable to use Beckett as an inspiration for a new piece of work provided it’s not too tangential,” said Dunbar. “But it’s never our intention to go too far away from Beckett because he knows what he’s doing. He’s not one of the foremost playwrights ever for nothing.”

Other highlights include the monologue Pas Moi / Not I performed in French and English by Clara Simpson, and a French-language staging of La Dernière Bande (Krapp’s Last Tape) starring Denis Lavant. Rough for Radio II, recorded by prisoners at HMP Liverpool, will be played at an event that will include a panel discussion about imprisonment.

“Beckett brings some kind of solace and comfort in difficult times,” said Dunbar, recalling the famous 1957 production of Waiting for Godot in San Quentin state prison in California. “The work in prisons makes sense when you realise that in pressured scenarios Beckett is so significant.”

If a sense of the passage of time is especially acute for prisoners, it is also central to Beckett’s work as a whole. “Beckett is constantly playing with time, so timing is very important,” said Dunbar. “It’s as strict as music. You won’t get musicians deciding not to hold a pause. Beckett is written the same way, and within that there is huge scope for expression. Therefore you stick to the music and everything starts to work.”

The festival concludes with a free concert of six contemporary theatre and dance productions.