Stroke City cuts a dash through politics of programming


CULTURE SHOCK:FEW FESTIVALS contain their contradictions in their titles. For what will probably be Ireland’s biggest arts bash next year, you don’t have to look far for the fault line. Its title is Derry-Londonderry 2013. Gerry Anderson’s “Stroke City” is alive and well: the hyphen is still the pivotal point.

The very choice of Derry as the UK’s first City of Culture provoked feelings that ranged from unadulterated local pride to allegations of cultural imperialism. The challenge for the festival’s head, Shona McCarthy, was not so much to bridge that divide as to somehow play with it. Is it possible to make the hyphen like the centre of a see-saw, a point from which you can tilt towards either side without falling off?

A festival programme is only a set of intentions, of course, but the one announced on Thursday is genuinely exciting. The fear, frankly, was that the City of Culture would be stifled by “parity of esteem”, “two traditions”, the careful calibration of one for the Fenians, one for the Brits. The intentions encoded in these gestures may be decent, but they end up precisely as gestures. The key word in “city of culture” has to be “culture”, and culture, properly understood, is open, complex and shifting.

It’s also, in the narrower field of art, supposed to be enjoyable. Hence the relief, that, in announcing the programme, McCarthy’s first words weren’t in the dead languages of political piety or, even worse, of the market. They were about the ambition to bring a sense of joy.

Derry has something to build on in this regard. Even when the Troubles were raging, the city had a more than decent tradition of trying to keep open a cultural space, one that could never be free of politics but that could, and did, live up to the basic duty of art to make apparently simple things complex. Derry has, of course, close associations with Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, James Simmons, Frank McGuinness, Jennifer Johnston and Seamus Deane. It was home to Field Day, which allied a broadly political agenda to a high, and therefore ambiguous, artistic ambition. It also pioneered, in Andy Hines and Shaun Davey’s brilliant pageant for the 300th anniversary of the Siege of Derry in 1990, a way of using art to make the potentially explosive business of commemoration richer and more fruitful – an example that should be recalled in this “decade of commemorations”.

But Derry also has a fabulous seam of the contrary and the individualistic, from Gerry Anderson, one of the greatest local broadcasters in the world, to Nell McCafferty and the great Nik Cohn. (Hands up who knew that Saturday Night Fever derives from a Derryman’s story, Cohn’s Another Saturday Night?)

Declan McGonagle, for a period in the 1980s, made the Orchard Gallery a major international space for avant-garde work. Musically, Derry may be linked forever with Dana and Phil Coulter, but it is also one of the great cities of punk rock and, just to be especially contrary, the home place of Neil Hannon.

The nice thing about the programme for 2013 is that it seems to acknowledge and build on this heritage without being reverential towards it. A central idea seems to be the desire to test how the elements of Derry’s culture over the past 40 years, most of them forged in the fires of conflict, can be renewed in the very different context of the post-Troubles city.

The resurrection of Field Day is the most obvious example. It would have been easy enough merely to revisit the company’s groundbreaking premiere of Friel’s Translations in 1980 – Adrian Dunbar’s production of the play will be part of a Friel season. But Field Day is in fact returning with three new plays: one by Sam Shepard and two by younger Ulster writers, Clare Dwyer Hogg’s Farewell and David Ireland’s Half a Glass of Water. The intention, at least, is clear: Field Day is not returning from the grave merely for some nights of the living dead. A similar intention is presumably behind the idea of a new musical, inevitably called Teenage Kicks, taking off from the city’s punk history but placed in a new context by Colin Bateman.

Just as interesting as these reinventions of Derry’s recent artistic past, though, will be the way the programme manages the whole business of being an Irish city functioning, very explicitly, in a UK context. McCarthy seems to have decided that the best strategy is not to wring one’s hands about these complexities but rather to use those hands to grab as much as possible from both the Irish and the British spheres. So Philip King’s Other Voices festival will migrate north from Dingle, while the Turner Prize has been lured from London.

More significant than these clever acquisitions, though, might be the sense that the divide between the “British” and “Irish” contexts is in fact rather porous. Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote the rightly acclaimed opening ceremony for the London Olympics, is devising a weekend-long open-air spectacle, The Return of Colmcille. Typical cultural imperialism, of course, except that Boyce, like his Olympic collaborator Danny Boyle, is a child of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The Royal Ballet is surely ultra-British, though it was founded by an Irishwoman and will feature the Co Down ballerina Melissa Hamilton. The London Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s At Sixes and Sevens, a cantata, using texts by Paul Muldoon. It’s shows such as these, where the two contexts sit together as naturally as they do in real life, that suggest the festival might just turn that awkward hyphen into a genuinely significant stroke.

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