The highs & the lows

Thu, Dec 29, 2011, 00:00

The Irish Timescritics pick the best and the worst of this year’s cultural offerings

ROSITA BOLAND

Highlights of the year

Project Nim, directed by James Marsh, was a compelling and deeply unsettling documentary about a newborn chimp being raised by a wealthy New York family in the 1970s. The project, a psychology experiment carried out by Columbia University, aimed at finding whether the chimp could use language to communicate with humans, thus becoming less chimp-like and more human-like. The story of the failure of this preposterous experiment, using archive footage and updated interviews with participants, is both mesmeric and powerful.

The National Gallery of Photography’s exhibition of a selection of photojournalist Steve McCurry’s most famous images was so fantastic I visited it three times. This wasn’t only outstanding photojournalism, capturing moments from conflict, cultures and human stories’ it was also art. His image of a flower-filled boat on a misty lake in Kashmir is the most beautiful photograph I saw all year.

Blood, Bones and Butter, the inadverdant education of a reluctant chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton. A visceral, arresting and marvellously written memoir about a life defined by food.

The Russian State Ballet at Grand Canal Theatre with a thrillingly technically beautiful and lyrical performance of Swan Lake.

Biggest disappointment

The partial closure of both Imma and the National Gallery, and the ensuing substantial reduction of what’s on show

Biggest surprise

The monologue, which has received many funeral notices, is not dead. Misterman, written by Enda Walsh, saw a phenomenal performance by Cillian Murphy, and it was the highlight of the Galway Arts Festival.

I have seen the future and it is . . .

More cutbacks, inventive ways of promoting shows, and a bartering system for tickets.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

Vampire movies. Even though I never saw any, I’m fed up reading about them.

2011 in three words

Black Swan– overhyped.

PETER CRAWLEY

Theatre highlights of the year

The Abbey’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s subversive comedy Pygmalionmight have used sumptuous costumes and crystal-cut diction to pass itself off as the Gate, but director Annabelle Comyn’s intelligent production and pitch-perfect ensemble allowed the play both a pleasing surface and considered depths.

Otherwise, it was a year of solo performances from James Thiérrée’s brief encounter with the Abbey for audience-pleaser Raoul,Enda Walsh’s revised Misterman,featuring a tour de force from Cillian Murphy, and Paul Reid creating a cast of hundreds and most of the special effects for Corn Exchange’s Man of Valour.

The standout performances were much more intimate: Veronica Dyas’s confessional In My Bed, Anu Production’s immersive Laundryand Thisispopbaby’s cathartic production of Mark O’Halloran’s Trade.The best theatre this year felt like a staged intervention.

Other highlights

To cheat a bit, NT Live’s broadcast of Danny Boyle’s Frankensteincame the closest to making sense of theatre on screen. Watching Merrill Garbus in Whelan’s, building up her sparse loops and supercharging her vocals, was exactly where you wanted to hear Tune-Yards deliver the excellent Whokill. Stand-up comedian Levi MacDougall stole the show from David O’Doherty and Demetri Martin in Vicar Street. And for superb television, The Killingwas like watching The Wirewith subtitles. Brilliant.

Biggest disappointment

Making “an event” out of Paul Mercier’s The Passingand East Pier(rehearsed together and performed in awkward rotation) compromised both plays.

Biggest surprise

When Pan Pan’s riff on Hamlet – The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane– was revived for a US and Irish tour, Conor Madden’s repeat performance was beyond remarkable. Earlier in the year the actor had suffered a brain-stem injury. The Rehearsalallowed a recovered Madden to talk about his rehabilitation. Most of the audience took it as fiction – pure comedy. In reality it was one of the bravest and most moving performances ever attached to the role.

I have seen the future and it is . . .

Musicals. Thisispopbaby staged a workshop performance of Phillip McMahon’s and Raymond Scannell’s Alice in Funderland in January.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

The presidential election. A giddy, horrifying time when politics, theatre and reality TV seemed indistinguishable.

2011 in three words

Singular, rejuvenating, transformative.

DONALD CLARKE

Film highlights of the year

Too many to name. Contemporary film-makers have found endless ways of engaging with prevailing gloom. Lars Von Trier’s latest, his best in a decade, was actually called Melancholia. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, as good an espionage film as you cold hope to see, refracted dark light through the greasy prism of the 1970s. Ben Wheatley’s brain-spilling Kill List– a blend of folk horror and kitchen-sink drama – ploughed its own, impressively grubby furrow. Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter, perhaps the year’s best film, was positively apocalyptic. Maybe that old maxim about bad times generating great art isn’t such hokum after all.

Other highlights

BBC Four’s Great Thinkers: In Their Own Wordswas little more than a collection of archived talking heads, but what talking heads: Freud, Jung, Russell, Skinner. Essential stuff. With Rio, Keith Jarrett, the great pianist, delivered one of his best ever solo improvisations.

On More 4, Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film, though a little plodding, told its story compellingly.

Biggest disappointment

Ricky Gervais’s Life’s Too Shorthad its moments, but – featuring Warwick Davis as a shorter David Brent – felt far too familiar. He needs to move on.

What was up with all the hysterical praise for Kate Bush’s water-treading 50 Words for Snow?The demise of the Light House Cinema in Dublin’s Smithfield was anticipated, but still lowered the spirits.

Biggest surprise

With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt actually managed to make something interesting out of the summer blockbuster. Astonishingly, the picture buzzed with ideas and, fitted with a cheeky open ending, left the viewer yearning for more.

I have seen the future and it is . . .

More of the same. Despite the excellence of much recent cinema, the top three spots at the world box office were occupied by the latest episodes in tired franchises: Harry Potter, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

Endless attempts to repackage classic fiction. I know that booksellers are fighting to keep the medium alive, but do we really need to publish Great Expectationsin three different gimmicky covers? This one says it’s a thriller. This one invites you to paint your own cover. This one features an introduction by Simon Cowell (not really). Even the record industry seems less desperate.

2011 in three words

End of times.

MICHAEL DERVAN

Musical highlights of the year

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival getting international recognition of an unusual and most welcome kind: a grant of €100,000 a year for three years from EU Culture Programme funds. The concert performances of Gerald Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnestby the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Cork Opera House branching out in a new direction with its Reich Effect festival, a 70th-birthday tribute to Steve Reich. Fledgling NI Opera’s effective site-specific production of Puccini’s Toscain Derry.

Individual performances that stood out were guitarist Xufei Yang’s revelatory account of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the RTÉ NSO under Alan Buribayev.

Other orchestral highlights included the Bavarian Radio SO under Mariss Jansons, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Simon Rattle and the Philadelphia Orchestra with Charles Dutoit. David Adams gave another wonderful organ recital at St Michael’s in Dún Laoghaire.

Other highlights

Getting up close and personal with Stravinsky in the form of Picasso’s 1917 pencil drawing at an exhibition in the Frick Collection in New York.

And seeing a Gutenberg Bible, pristine and astonishingly perfect, as well as earlier non-printed books, in the Huntington Museum near Pasadena at a time when physical books and libraries are yielding to digital forms.

Biggest disappointment

The ongoing mess that is the handling of opera by the Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan, and the Arts Council.

The failure to sort out the structure of the board of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, promised in the wake of last year’s scandal over John O’Conor’s remuneration packages. The curtailment in extent and quality of the NCH’s international series, in the absence of any compensating developments for Irish performers or composers.

And the Irish Chamber Orchestra seems to be losing the plot when it comes to programming appropriately for Dublin audiences.

Biggest surprise

The appointment of Simon Taylor as director of the National Concert Hall.

I have seen the future and it is . . .

Fragile, fraught and full of fear.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

The plague of uncertainty that’s enveloping us all.

2011 in three words

Calm before storm?

JIM CARROLL

Music highlights of the year

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Adele take over the world, though probably not as much as her label XL relished seeing the sales tally for 21 every Monday morning. Fantastic albums still standing at year’s end came from Nicolas Jaar, Tune-Yards, Wild Flag, Shabazz Palaces, Tieranniesaur, We Cut Corners, Land Lovers, Active Child and PJ Harvey.

Damon Albarn was responsible for one of my gig highlights for the second year in a row, this time with Honest Jon’s Chop-Up. And I thought the Electric Picnic discovered some brand new momentum this year, which will serve it well for next year and beyond.

Other highlights

Two big screen highlights involved cars, though both Driveand Sennawere trips in vastly different ways. I also liked Denis Villeneuve’s fantastic Incendies and the Coens’ True Grit. On the telly, Bored to Deathwas a great find, Love/Hateis probably the best drama RTÉ has commissioned for years and Blue Bloodswas worth following. On the bookshelf, Hampton Sides’s Hellhound On His Trailis a great narrative around Martin Luther King’s assassination and Don Charnas’s The Big Paybacktells how hip-hop went from New York playgrounds to multi-billion global business.

Biggest disappointment

The outbreak of nostalgia which greeted the return of The Stone Roses. People obviously forgot how awful they were at end of their career the first time around.

Biggest surprise

Neil Diamond demonstrating the softness of the Irish live music market at present. The huge volume of radio ads, more than even you hear urging you to buy a TV licence, just didn’t work as fans decided to give Neil and his Beautiful Noisea pass on this occasion. Expect promoters to tread safely when it comes to acts like this and big venues in the future.

I have seen the future and it is . . .

A world where musical eclecticism rules OK. Say what you will about the internet, but easy access to millions of tunes means music fans (particularly younger music fans) are fast developing broad and deep palettes and very open minds. Long may it continue.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

Oxegen, a festival which is taking a break in 2012 but needs to be rebooted, rebranded and rehoused somewhere which is not Punchestown before it returns in 2013.

2011 in three words

One more tune.

UNA MULLALLY

Music highlights of the year

Anna Calvi dropping jaws with Rider To The Seain the Workman’s Club in Dublin in March. Adele giggling and swearing her way through the best album of the year, 21,at the Olympia in April.

JD Samson’s MEN rocking Block T in Smithfield at the not-for-profit Frighten The Horses party in June.

Kelis’ astoundingly brilliant set at Lovebox in Hackney in June. Caribou playing Sunas, yes, the sun split through the clouds on Sunday evening at the Forbidden Fruit festival in the grounds of Imma in Kilmainham in June. Beyonce belting out 1+1 at Oxegen in July.

James Vincent McMorrow’s beautiful voice practically stopping time underground in a cave in Mitchelstown in July. The Rubberbandits leaving the horse outside and creating something entirely subversive at Electric Picnic in September. The opening chords of Spanish Saharaas performed by Foals on the shores of Lake Malawi at the Lake of Stars festival at the end of September, and Azari III vogueing their way through Crawdaddy in November.

Other highlights

A jam-packed Dublin Fringe Festival, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at Imma, the inspiration that flowed from the Office of Non-Compliance at Dublin Contemporary, and the bellyaching wit of Bridesmaids.

Biggest disappointment

The death of Amy Winehouse before she could realise her true potential.

Biggest surprise

That VICE, the media empire that simultaneously endorsed, created, criticised, mocked and fueled hipster post-culture like some kind of deranged neon human centipede, has now also managed to produce the most poignant, nihilistic and pertinent commentary on its own self-built wicker man: the Dalston Superstars TV web series.

I have seen the future and it is . . .

Niceness becoming a real life meme. Online connectivity has fuelled real-life partnerships, collectives, and initiatives beyond hashtags and Facebook groups. From the crowdfunding of FundIt to the crowdsourcing of the Twitter Xmas single, people are creating parallel structures outside existing arts handouts embedding a DIY philosophy in creativity that will continue to become the new way of doing things, especially as traditional and conventional sources of funding disappear.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

The snobbery of categorising everything that isn’t deemed trendy as “The New Boring”.

2011 in three words

It starts here.

SHANE HEGARTY

Arts highlights of the year

Conor Horgan’s film One Hundred Morningswas a timely view of an Irish apocalypse.

James Gleick’s The Information, about humanity’s long-running attempts to harness knowledge, was my book of the year – but having since met him, I can reveal he hides his brain the size of a planet very well.

US television drama Homelandhas been excellent. Claire Danes plays a CIA agent who suspects that POW Damian Lewis has been turned by al Qaeda. A slower, smarter, more thoughtful version of 24, it has built characters while throwing in perfectly timed twists. And, for those of us of The Princess Bridegeneration, Mandy Patinkin is a treat in it.

But the stand-out for me was Laundry, Anú’s production in the old Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street. They call it “participative theatre”, but no title can neatly sum up this absorbing, provocative and disturbing experience. I bought into it fully and, whether dancing with one “Maggie”, sharing sweets with another, or in the terrible discomfort of a bath scene, I found it a profound experience.

Biggest disappointment

Dublin Contemporary 2011 didn’t quite succeed in its stated mission to demystify modern art.

I spent a particular afternoon at the Earlfort Terrace exhibition listening to various visitors express their bafflement at what was before them.

Biggest surprise

Seeing Michael Morpurgo read at the Kinsale Arts festival – although, when I say read, he delivered only one line from his books.

Instead, he enthralled and entertained the children and adults present – and talked honestly about war (a feature of his books, such as War Horse)and the cruelty of the world.

I have seen the future and it is . . .

Visual. For so long we have defined ourselves as a literary or oral culture, but there is so much going on – street art, design, film, comic books – that is proving otherwise. The Pivot bid for Dublin as World Design Capital 2014 summed that up.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

Zombies. I read Colson Whitehead’s literary Zombie novel Zone One. I dutifully watched season two of The Walking Dead. I shot at them on an Xbox. There’s nowhere left for them to shuffle. Time for a new bogeyman.

2011 in three words

Open your eyes.

LAURENCE MACKIN

Highlights of the year

In Raoulon the Abbey stage in February, James Thiérrée sent audiences skipping out into the streets like born-again six-year-olds, such was the guile, invention and theatrical magic he created on stage with a small cast, an astonishing set and some jaw-droppnig acrobatics and athleticism.

It was all about the site specifics in theatre, with Thisispopbaby’s standout Trade my pick of the bunch. I breathed in sharply in the first minute and didn’t exhale for 45 more.

In art, Dublin Contemporary managed to wrest an expansive and impressive exhibition out of a chaotic farrago, and generated a huge amount of enthusiasm for modern art. In dance, David Bolger and CosCéim again showed their class, with a truly beautiful piece of dance theatre in Touch Me(which tours nationwide in February). It did more than so many other artforms to address where we are and how we got here. My music festival of the year was 12 Pointsin the Project: four days of the best in European jazz, with three bands a night, followed by a late-night free jam. Kaja Draksler’s Acropolis Quintet just about shades it for best performance.

Biggest disappointment

The closure of the Light House Cinema in Smithfield was a huge blow, and a desperate waste of a fabulous space, so we are anxiously awaiting its reopening after the current bidding process.

And all these tiny shows in odd spaces are all well and good, but the threats, bribes, pleading and (god forbid) forward planning needed to secure tickets are starting to feel like a regular habit.

Biggest surprise

Walking out of both Rian and Gardenia in the Dublin Theatre Festival feeling angry and cheated, and spending the months since arguing with nearly everyone who thinks they are the work of minor deities (I still think you’re all wrong, by the way).

I have seen the future and it is . . .

Jazz hip hop. Robert Glasper masterfully showed how to blend the two in the Workmans Club a few weeks ago, and won over a non-jazz audience with a stylish, slick performance.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

Any suggestion that Imma be merged with the National Gallery, the Crawford, RTÉ, ESB and any other semi-State you’re having yourself. With the Budget done and dusted, can we forget about this please?

2011 in three words

Did you see . . .?

SARA KEATING

Theatre highlights of the year

Louise Lowe’s extraordinary Laundry, which transformed the history of the Magdalene Laundries into a question of social responsibility. Chillling and compulsive at the same time.

James Thierry’s beautiful Raoulat the Abbey Theatre; circus spectacle and illusion at its finest.

Other highlights

Tom Waits’s new album Bad As Me; the ultimate showman gets better with age.

Biggest disappointment

Tea Obrecht’s Booker prize-winning debut The Tiger’s Wife,a mix of magic and social realism that never gelled.

Biggest surprise

HBO’s excellent first series of Game of Thrones. Who knew that George RR Martin’s cult fantasy novels would become a mainstream hit?

I have seen the future and it is . . .

Personal; wave goodbye to fictive invention as reality completely takes over.

I’ll be glad to see the back of . . .

Analogue TV. The future has been digital for years.