Seeing the city in a different light

Fri, Jun 22, 2012, 01:00

Cork Midsummer Festival is taking audiences into odd spaces, from the Barry’s Tea factory to hotel rooms that need cleaning, with a theatrical programme that almost feels like a constant work-in-progress, writes PETER CRAWLEY

AT FIRST, THE Argentinian director Gerardo Naumann is hard to spot among several figures in high-visibility vests and white paper hats, all busy on the assembly line of the Barry’s Tea factory in Cork. When I find him he is quietly assembling a stack of tea boxes on a wooden palette, contemplating the structure as though it were a puzzle. He asks Greta McKensie, the general production-line operative, about the precise gaps that must be left between the boxes, and for a while it is hard to tell who is supervising whom.

Rehearsals for his production La Fábrica (The Factory), to be performed here for visiting audience members, resume shortly after, and Greta, wearing a collar microphone so we can hear her over the noise of industry, begins to assemble her story.

Working as she speaks, Greta talks about the specifics of the job, her co-workers, her life and her thoughts about the product as it leaves Cork for, potentially, anywhere in the world. “I’m the last person to touch the box before they do,” she tells us. “I’ll never see them and they’ll never see me.” During Greta’s section, one of several speeches delivered by Barry’s Tea employees in situ, it dawns on you that were it not for this performance, we would never see her either. That, though, is one of the aims of Ciudades Paralelas (Parallel Cities), a programme of eight events taking place in various “functional spaces” around Cork, curated by the Argentinian theatre-maker Lola Arias and the German theatre-maker Stefan Kaegi – to make the invisible visible, to show the city in different lights.

It is also why, during this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival, you may find yourself following a choir as they sing Renaissance liturgy through Cork Courthouse in Christian Garcia’s In The Name of The People. Or why you may peep through the windows of two houses on St Patrick’s Hill at night to spy on their residents for Dominic Huber’s Prime Time. Or read from giant displays in Kent Station as they spiel out imaginative commentary about the commuters below during Mariano Pensotti’s Sometimes I Think, I Can See You. Then move briskly through the Maldron hotel rooms as you learn the stories of those that clean them in Lola Arias’s Chamber Maids.

Tom Creed, delivering his first programme as director of Cork Midsummer Festival, first saw these pieces last year in Zurich and considered the performances “an extraordinary gift for me as a visitor; to have a kind of backstage tour of the city. I imagined what it might be like for a festival to present its own city to its own people in that way.”

There is great attraction and some tension in that idea, and how easily Arias and Kaegi’s project can be transplanted from city to city. So far Ciudades Paralelas has been performed in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Zurich, Copenhagen, Singapore and Utrecht. While each performance is necessarily different, built in response to the sites from the ground up with the help of local participants and artists, the building blocks of the city remain the same – factory, court, shopping centre, house, library, hotel, station, a rooftop – and it reminds you of increasingly interchangeable contemporary cityscapes: our Daniel Libeskind building is bigger than your Daniel Libeskind building.

Taking a break from Arias’s rehearsals at the Maldron Hotel (ordinarily she favours eerily uniform international chains such as Ibis), the engagingly playful Kaegi, one of the members of the influential contemporary theatre company Rimini Protokoll, savours an irony of globalisation.

“Last week I was in London, talking to someone who does professional rebrandings of cities. He said 187 cities around the world have all rebranded themselves as, ‘City of Contrasts’. Cities in their structure are all similar. The fact that cities all have so many things in common may not be in the interests of their marketers, but that’s the reality for people visiting those cities.”

In many ways, Ciudades Paralelas is an antidote to the globalisation of cities, but also to that of arts festivals themselves. “Normally the blackbox theatre is this ‘zero space’ where touring productions will go and look the same, basically,” says Kaegi. “Staging work out in the city becomes more complex. Here, the artists work with the people and they stay longer.” Naumann, for instance, has been at Barry’s Tea factory for four weeks and Arias at the hotel for three weeks. “It’s a very interactive experience, so it doesn’t at all feel like big touring companies arriving and moving out again two days later. It’s a constant workshop.”

For Creed, who had to design a programme without festival regulars Corcadorca, the Street Performance World Championships or the Spiegeltent venue, it may also reconcile the twin demands for imported shows and internal investment: “It’s a way of presenting international work in a local way.”

Its conceptual elements may be the same, but Ciudades Paralelas has encountered differences and nuances on the ground. Just as Barry’s Tea seems totemically of Cork and Irish culture, Berlin’s factory belonged to Mercedes-Benz, Warsaw’s house was a brutalist apartment block and Buenos Aires’s library was almost bare, because, they were told, most of the books had been stolen. “In Argentina and Warsaw every cleaner is from the city,” Arias says of Chamber Maids. “It’s a very privileged job so you wouldn’t have foreigners doing it. But in most of the other cities all the cleaners were foreigners. You see how global chains attract all these migrants who take the worst jobs with the lowest salaries, and the same system works all over Europe, from Cork to Berlin to Zurich. This is the globalised world. The difference is how these migrants relate to the culture, how they are integrated or not. But the system is the same.”

Ciudades Paralelas is discreetly political, but not disruptive: Arias’s cleaners are cautious not to offend their employers, for instance, although Kaegi points out, with some amusement, that Mercedes-Benz complained they made one or two fewer cars during the performances. And they say art can’t make a difference?

Ciudades Paralelas runs until July.

Midsummer morsels A festival selection

Berlin Love Tour Lynda Radley’s playful and heartbreaking work about love, memory and monuments for Playgroup enjoys two inspired bits of casting: Hilary O’Shaughnessy is the guide of our walking tour through Berlin, itself played by Cork. Tom Creed directs.

Solstice Developed from the festival’s Young Curators Programme, Solstice first appeared last year as a mini festival within the festival (just don’t call it a Fringe) for new and emerging artists. This year, it runs for five days in the gargantuan ground floor of the Elysian building, with a programme of works from Ireland and abroad.

Starlight A site-responsive dance piece from choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir, this premiere leads the audience through Cork’s home of dance Firkin Crane, negotiating through unlit stages and sparkling constellations with the performances of Matthew Morris and Peggy Grelat-Dupont.

RECORD: Dylan Tighe, director of the 2009 Irish Times Irish Theatre Award for best production, No Worst, There is None, premieres a new work of autobiography, fiction, medical records and film to explore depression, mental illness and its treatments. Divided between various platforms, the project consists of his recently released new album, an alternative opera based on its songs, and a series of discussions.

Hungry Tea Creative Connections, a two-year intercultural project for women in Cork, collaborate with Mark Storor, an award-winning artist who specialises in working with troubled communities, to create a site-specific performance in an inner-city house, transforming the space inside out and top to bottom with installations to express their stories.

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