Feasting on festivals


Laurence Mackin ‘When it clicks on stage, there is nothing like it’

Arminta Wallace: ‘Pick one? Are you kidding?’

Your favourite festival?That would have to be Edinburgh, for the sheer range of stuff on offer. For the playing of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in Wagner’s Parsifal, conducted by Claudio Abbado in 2002: five hours that passed in one luminous, unforgettable musical phrase. For the mad venues, the fantastic food and, above all, the glories of the city.

Favourite festival moment?When the Macnas parade kicked off in Galway last year it transformed the city into an alternative universe – and this frazzled fiftysomething first-timer into a wide-eyed child.

Worst festival moment?Walking towards passport control at Zurich airport, having landed en route to an interview with the mezzo Cecilia Bartoli at the Schwarzenberg Schubertiade, in the Austrian Alps, and realising I had no passport. Heck, that was a worst life moment. Swiss efficiency being what it is, my passport was spotted in the seat pocket on the plane and returned to me, so I was able to cross the border into Austria.

What ingredient is common to the best festivals?Good organisation and a great programme, for starters. But a strongly rooted sense of place is what makes a festival special. If the place is small enough to walk around all the venues, and has a river and/or bridges and/or uplifting architecture and lots of great cafes, vital for recharging the critical batteries at all sorts of odd hours, so much the better.

One thing you’d be glad to see the back of Parking meters. Nothing kills the festival spirit quite so smartly or so disastrously. Cover them up.

If you’d recommend one festival this summer, it would be . . .Just one? Are you kidding? West Cork Literary Festival, where I’m heading this very day. Kilkenny is always wonderful. How about the New Ross Piano Festival in September, as recommended by BBC Music magazine last year? Or any good festival. Just go.

Peter Crawley: ‘Galway Arts Festival is a constant hum of activity and interplay’

Your favourite festival?Tough call. The timing of Dublin Theatre Festival and the Absolut Fringe may have slipped – they used to be concurrent, now they’re consecutive – but in recent years their aesthetic differences have narrowed dramatically. For rough fun with a considered design, it has to be the fringe festival. For constant stimulation, Irish and international congruence and high production values, it’s DTF. Both have spilled performance beyond traditional confines, with an electronic light show on Liffey Hall or a Monopoly-inspired installation on the river turning the entire city into a site-specific venue.

Your favourite festival moment?Coming out of Anu’s head-spinning fringe production of World End’s Lane, in 2010, in which reality mingled with performance, and not being able to tell for 40 minutes if the show had finished or if all Dublin was in on the act.

Your worst festival moment?Maybe getting thrown out of a drag-show cabaret at Galway Arts Festival because the performer had taken exception to a previous review of mine. We worked it out the next year at the Macnas parade. I was wearing a lot of make-up at the time.

What ingredient is common to the best festivals?An appreciation of time and place. Cork Midsummer benefits from the kinetic surge and social juxtapositions of its city, and this year’s programme responded to them thematically and physically. Nowhere is prettier than Kilkenny Arts Festival in the sun, but the city’s Gothic architecture also lends resonance to music, discussion and performance. And Galway Arts Festival is a constant hum of activity and interplay in a place as compact as it is beautiful. A festival’s programme needn’t be strictly tailored, though: Brokentalkers’ The Blue Boy, Thisispopbaby’s Trade and Anu’s Laundry had immediate resonance during DTF, but so did international works such as Black Watch, Small Metal Objects and Once and for All. The best festivals put the right shows in the right place at the right time.

One thing you’d be glad to see the back ofRepetition. Okay, festivals sharing productions may be great for local audiences, theatre-makers, the life span of productions and culture in general. But with Corcadorca’s Request Programme, Fishamble’s Silent and Druid’s everything touring from festival to festival, such foresight and economy deprive hard-working theatre critics of employment. What are we supposed to do now? QA features?

If you’d recommend one festival this summer, it would be . . .With holidays thrumming with mirth, freedom and ice cream, why not escape it all for the apocalyptic existentialist world view of Samuel Beckett? The inaugural Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, next month, celebrates the great writer with a mix of music, sports, puppetry and performance, including the legendary Robert Wilson in Happy Days and Pan Pan’s excellent – and already reviewed – All That Fall.

Donald Clarke‘Part of history’

Your favourite festival?The three largest Irish film festivals – Cork, Dublin and Galway – have their distinct virtues. Cannes is, well, Cannes. The most remarkable movie event I have attended remains the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Finland. There is nothing stranger than emerging from a midnight screening to find mosquitos playing in sunlight. It also has a top-notch programme and great guests.

Your favourite moment?Standing behind Michael Haneke and Agnes Varda, two formidable directors, as they made their way to their seats for the first screening of the new Jean-Luc Godard film at Cannes. The movie, Film Socialisme, was awful, but one felt part of history.

Worst festival moment:Sitting in a half-empty cinema for a gala screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2008 and realising that a once-untouchable event – moved out of the Edinburgh International Festival – was dying before my eyes.

What is common to the best festivals?A sense that the event is programmed by people who love the medium.

If you were to recommend one festival this summer, it would be . . .Galway Film Fleadh, which begins on Tuesday, remains the most hectic film event of the summer.

Laurence Mackin ‘When it clicks on stage, there is nothing like it’

Your favourite Irish festival?The Absolut Fringe/Dublin Theatre Festival. Given the way this pair are scheduled, it feels like one enormous, chaotic rollover. It completely takes over the city, and for several weeks you get the sense that anything could happen. Except sleep.

Your favourite festival moment?Not so much a moment as a feature: the free-jam sessions at the 12 Points festival. Every night, after the roster of gigs has finished, the musicians and most of the crowd decamp to the festival club, where the players and audience members jam out tunes until the small hours. When you are in the room, and it clicks on stage, there is nothing like it. This is music and interaction you won’t hear again.

Your worst festival moment?Several years ago I was playing in a band that was hired to perform at a festival in Leitrim. We arrived in torrential rain to find the only access to the site was flooded, so we would have to hump our gear a serious distance, through the teeming rain and the well-oiled crowd. Rather than sort out the situation, the promoter was more interested in seeing the band that was then playing on the main stage, so we decided to pull our slot – meaning the journey and effort were for nothing. It was all for the best in the end, though, because later that evening one punter unplugged all the generators, while another drove a tractor through the tent at the time that we were meant to be playing.

What ingredient is common to the best festivals?The postshow banter. There is nothing better than the collective enthusiasm in the wake of a really good performance, the chats about it afterwards – and the lone, dissenting voices – and the satisfaction of knowing you have seen something special. Maybe that should be “postshow smugness”.

One thing you’d be glad to see the back ofIt would be terrific if all festivals would offer a multishow ticket, or at least worthwhile discounts for buying tickets in bulk.

If you’d recommend one festival this summer, it would be . . .Mary from Dungloe International Festival. Though I hear the Deirdre from Dundalk is also a belter.

Rosita Boland: ‘My worst? The Ginger Festival in Cavan’

Your favourite festival?I’m the most unlikely person ever to have gone to Glastonbury, as I have zero interest in going to gigs. Yet I was dragged along by friends in 1994 and had an amazing time. I went to the circus field, the fabulous food stalls, the mind- and-body field, and everything nonmusical I could find. There was a very specific impulsive and energising buzz. I recall attending only one gig – by Björk – which I loved.

Your favourite festival moment?It’s very simple, but it has stayed with me. Waking up in my then flat on Market Street in Galway in 1996, during the arts festival, and looking out of the bedroom window at St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church. What I saw was that the giant tree in the church yard had been transformed overnight. Hundreds of oranges were now suspended from branches. It looked like something from Aladdin: a bejewelled tree. It was reputed to be the work of Macnas. Ever since, when I pass it, I remember that little bit of festival urban magic.

Your worst festival moment?That was at the one-day Ginger Festival in Cavan on the August bank holiday in 2009, which was to “celebrate redheads”. In keeping with the red and orange theme, a paddling pool was filled with 100 litres of baked beans, water and 15 bags of flour. I reported at the time: “Soon after 9pm, two men in shorts and orange torsos dive into the baked-bean paddling pool and enthusiastically thrash about for a few minutes to huge cheers. They emerge looking like mutant goldfish crossed with the spawn of the Creature from the Orange Lagoon. A lot more wrestling is promised, with prizes for the ‘most stylish wrestlers’, but at this point I leave.”

What is common to the best festivals?A festival club where audiences, workers and participants gather after the long day’s journey into night, and continue the conversation.

One thing you’d be glad to see the back ofPeople delivering lengthy, off-topic statements after readings.

If you’d recommend one festival this summer, it would be . . .Sadly, one that’s already over and that I’m raging I didn’t get to. The pop-up esoteric-sounding Drop Everything in May on Inis Oírr, which was funded by FundIt. It is scheduled to be staged again in 2014.

Michael Dervan: ‘Most common ingredient? A stout heart’

Your favourite festival?West Cork Chamber Music Festival, which has breadth and depth unrivalled in Ireland. The formula is simple. Bring together top-flight musicians from Ireland and around the world, and put them together in new permutations in works great and obscure, with a serious commitment to commissioned work and music by living composers. Then there’s the intimacy of the venues, especially Bantry House, and the natural beauty of the area.

Your favourite festival moment?Hard to pick. Steven Isserlis playing solo cello suites by Bach at St Canice’s Cathedral during Kilkenny Arts Festival. Or the special Easter festival of the complete Shostakovich string quartets played in Bantry House by their leading interpreters, the Borodin Quartet. Or hearing the RTÉ NSO sounding unrecognisably gorgeous in the sonic glow of the Helix’s Mahony Hall during the late, lamented RTÉ Living Music Festival.

Worst festival moment?Seeing Vladimir Ashkenazy at the Great Music in Irish Houses festival in Kilruddery House, already contending with a keyboard wet from a leak in the then unrestored conservatory roof, having to shush an insensitive audience member near the front who was making distracting noises.

What ingredient is common to the best festivals?A stout heart with a willingness to take risks and embrace danger, to surprise audiences while understanding that failures are an inevitable part of the adventure.

One thing you’d be glad to see the back ofA lot of music festivals happen in places not designed for concerts. The disappearance of bum-numbing seats would be a real treat.

If you’d recommend one festival this summer, it would be . . .Two, actually. Kilkenny Arts Festival for its ongoing forays into rarely heard early music – this year it features groups from France and Switzerland, Le Concert Spirituel and La Morra – and Wexford Festival Opera, which is daring to put on A Village Romeo and Juliet. It’s an opera by Delius, a man whose work has never been known to fill a venue anywhere in Ireland.

Jim Carroll ‘The audience makes a festival’

Your favourite festival?Electric Picnic. It’s the only Irish festival that joins the dots between music, art, chin-stroking discussions, science, food and the general friendly chaos in the Body Soul area in a way that makes sense over an entire weekend. I’ve seen excellent big-stage performances in Stradbally, but that’s just part of the attraction.

Your favourite festival moment?The Electric Picnic around 2am on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. The main stages are closed down for the night, but the site is still buzzing, and it’s when you come across wild trad sessions on abandoned trawlers in the forest, bluegrass gramophone discos in speakeasies or pop-up mini-raves in yoga tents. It’s these unexpected events that give the festival its real lustre.

Your worst festival moment?When a festival chooses the wrong act and they end up playing to a handful of people. The National at Oxegen last year probably got paid thousands to play to a few hundred people. Surely the band, their manager and their agent knew that Oxegen was the wrong fit.

What ingredient is common across the best festivals?People intent on having a good time without getting on anyone else’s wick. You can have all the bands, art installations and gourmet food stalls in the world, but it’s the audience and the vibe they have that make a festival a success or a flop.

One thing you’d be glad to see the back ofFeatures on the ideal festival wardrobe.

If you’d recommend one festival this summer, it would be . . .Belsonic, in Belfast. It’s fantastic to see city festivals like Forbidden Fruit take off, and Belsonic is cut from slightly similar cloth. Between August 15th and 26th you can see Skrillex, Madness, Emeli Sandé, Two Door Cinema Club, Duke Special, Oberhofer, The Coronas and others at large in Custom House Square, in the heart of the city.

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