Cork Midsummer Festival: Creative sparks and blazing performances

From city stage to online, the first week seeks equilibrium in an off-kilter year

Corcadorca’s Where’s the Horse?

Corcadorca’s Where’s the Horse?


‘We wanted to create a space for artists to celebrate in the fire of so much loss and isolation,” says Lorraine Maye about the collaborative commissioning ambitions driving the Cork Midsummer Festival of 2021. As director of the festival, she makes it clear there could be no chance of ignoring the distress of her constituency during the last 15 months.

Although Covid restrictions have influenced both the content and the presentation of many features this year, a significant increase in her Arts Council grant allowed a further expansion and strengthening of the programme. Whether a sense of balance in the final lineup was obscured by the imperatives of delivery is an issue for another day, But the point is at least raised with the impact of Landmark Productions’ presentation of Deirdre Kinahan’s The Saviour as the festival’s headline item so far.

Livestreamed from the Everyman Theatre stage, the performances – only two: mother and son – blaze with an integrity made more powerful by the screen’s intimacy. Credit here must go first to the streaming and camera teams, and to Louise Lowe’s direction which achieves an impression of space even while close-ups have a filmic ruthlessness.

Marie Mullen as the widowed Maire is undaunted. Her face is mobile, the expressions so mutable as to change from shy to roguish at an instant’s thought. Clad in a powerful negligee in a room at once confession-box and boudoir, she confides her happiness to Jesus, who unfortunately has no chance against a man who loves her casserole. Neither has her son Mel, played by Brian Gleeson with the rueful purposefulness of a messenger charged with dire truths. His task is to frighten Maire into banishing the man who has invaded her house and her heart, but he attacks an earlier intruder, the usurper of his childhood where Jesus took up all the room. “Do you remember that?” he challenges Maire. Her face says she does, but she can’t speak it. Their blazing, terminally damaging confrontation batters her faith in forgiveness; she embraces Jesus in a passion of maternity as if she herself is on the cross.

Perhaps Kinahan has slightly over-played the dramatic credibility but her shafts of truth are unforgettably precise. Maire recalls her youth in a place “for orphan girls, forgotten girls, bad girls. Or just girls”. Thanks to her faith in the grace of Christ she knows she will be with her husband in eternity, hoping to heaven that by then “he’ll be in better form”. There’s a lot of grace in this play, and both Mullen and Gleeson are blessed with it.

Not so the subject of another of the festival’s heavy hitters. Visual artist Marie Brett presents The Day-Crossing Farm as a mobile installation focused on themes of human trafficking, modern slavery and drug farming. Commissioned by CMF in a two-year collaboration examining justice, advocacy and protection, the interactive piece is informed by extensive research. The festival’s artist-in-residence, composer and sound designer Peter Power, with filmmaker Linda Curtin and lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels, have created a grim dreamworld of splintered reality where light and soundscape diffuse the edges and interiors of a decomposing house. Like some other events, this was followed by an online question-and-answer gathering. Led by Miguel Amado, the session was one of the more revealing.

Cross-Town Drift

There are revelations too in the city itself; A City and A Garden was part of the Arts Council’s Brightening Air season. Commissioned by Sounds from a Safe Harbour, the piece invited participants, via smartphones, on a tour through either Cork city or Dublin’s Botanic Gardens led by Gavin Corbett, Louise Hegarty, Lisa McInerney and Melata-Uche Okorie. McInerney read for this, and also for Cross-Town Drift, another walking-reading event, with Eimear Ryan, whose first novel Holding Her Breath has just been published.

This year’s programme is organised in “strands”: online, city gallery, city rising, city stage, with venues across the city from the port to the fort. Taoiseach Micheál Martin launched the festival by initiating, a few days in advance of its programme, the first of the Art Gifts, in which he was serenaded by soprano Majella Cullagh with Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro in a socially distanced solo at Elizabeth Fort.

The importance of those hefty practitioners, who confirm the festival as a significant marker of the country’s generative cultural energy, can’t be lost in what might be described as a whimsical but not undisciplined element of content, expressed, for example, by graphic designer Kieran O’Connor in his illustrations for Corcadorca’s Where is the Horse? Those inclined to look this stalking horse in the mouth will find a Tricolour on one tooth and a Union Jack on another as signals of an interpretation (Kevin Barry, Pat Kiernan and Mel Mercier) of Frank O’Connor’s famous short story Guests of the Nation. “Pat gave me a very detailed briefing and sourced the big horse’s head from some equine journal or veterinary thing. The smaller horse was a stock image. I just manipulated them with things they didn’t teach me in art school.”

Although Horse is a work-in-progress aimed at a finished production for 2022, it’s a reminder that the appeal of things which aren’t taught in art school rides happily along with the city-wide saunter of this two-person pantomime nag designed by Elisa Gallo Rossa, and representing a moral dilemma versus a nationalist imperative. The lifeblood of CMF depends on the fact that interpretation, like imagination, is free.

There are wilder shores to explore in a schedule linked by coincidences – inevitable in a city often depending on its resident creativity. Marja Gaynor is leader of John O’Brien’s 22-person orchestra mustered in full concert fig for four outdoor performances of O’Brien’s Lullaby for a City (In a Time of Pandemic); Gaynor is also a member of the 2020 Quartet (with the Ficino and Vanbrugh quartets) in the Best of Beethoven series streamed from the Triskel Arts Centre. Commissioned for the festival, O’Brien’s score (its title surely an echo of Gabriel García Márquez) is an evocation of quietude, whispered nursery songs and the lull of summer evenings shared in unexpected places.

The Saviour is on demand until June 27th. For details of the second week of Cork Midsummer Festival, see

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