Belfast Festival hits its targets

‘Bullet Catch’ asked loaded questions of its audience members, and such co-operation seemed to define this year’s festival

Wed, Oct 30, 2013, 01:00

On Friday night in Belfast, the performer Rob Drummond took an audience member onstage and asked him, in front of a large crowd, about his religious beliefs and his experience with firearms. In the long history and living memory of this city these questions might have been considered loaded. So, apparently, was the gun that Drummond handed to his volunteer, before calmly asking to be shot in the face.

The performance was Bullet Catch at the Lyric, an artful and moving piece couched in the illusions, delight and heart-stopping tensions of a magic act. Its inclusion in the 51st programme of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s seemed sensitive and considered. Drummond’s onstage volunteer was not the only person to be directly involved in the performance, which threaded the story of a magician who died 100 years ago while attempting “the most dangerous stunt in magic”, between various breath-taking feats. Several audience members contributed thoughts on the nature of free will and determinism – some solicited, some not, but all entertained – and though the magician did give away some of his tricks, the most stirring of these was magic’s reliance on co-operation and collaboration. Such spirit seemed to define this year’s festival.

Audience involvement
Indeed, much of new festival director Richard Wakely’s first programme depended on direct audience involvement, such as Roger Bernat’s political discussion Pending Vote, for which each member could vote on a range of subjects, and the opening festival event, Wish, a contemporary art project realised by the festival’s first ever artist-in-residence, Jorge Rodrígues-Gerada, in collaboration with volunteers from communities throughout the city, and the donation of more than 4,000 tons of sand and soil from the city’s construction industry.

The project, in Wakely’s words, was “a very deliberate signal of change” towards a festival engaged with “contemporary arts practice, audience participation and global connectivity”.

As Jane Coyle pointed out in these pages last week, the resulting work, spread across an 11-acre site before the Titanic Belfast building, can only be appreciated in its entirety from directly above (restricted viewing, so to speak, was possible from the Titanic building). But the likelihood was that most people would observe it via their televisions, computers and smartphones. The artwork, which received attention from international media, thus took local participation global in ways hitherto unimaginable.

If this remarkable congruence of ideas and display suggested that Richard Wakely’s vision for the programme had a long time to germinate, nothing could be further than the truth.

Wakely, who has had a long international career as a theatre manager and producer of theatre and dance, was appointed to the position in April. Given the vagaries of budgets, company schedules and venue availability, most festival directors will design their programmes over a period of at least a year, and often longer. Wakely had eight weeks.

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