Fintan O’Toole's 2015: The importance of being inconclusive
I’m not sure we learn anything from the arts – except that we need them more than ever
I’m not sure we learn anything from the arts – except that we need them more than ever. They are a way of knowing unlike all the others, a knowing that doesn’t banish all the great unknowns, a light that respects the surrounding darkness. And in a year when the State made it clear that nothing matters unless it can be converted into money, by giving the Disney corporation jurisdiction over the sacred site of Skellig Michael, it was all the more important that the actual experience of the arts was that of a mysterious vitality.
One of the great movies of 2015, Ava DuVernay’s gripping Selma, for example, may well be a very bad way to learn history: historians, with a great deal of justice, took issue with its simplistic depiction of Lyndon Johnson as the evil foil to the heroic Martin Luther King. But it was still an utterly compelling enactment of political struggle, maybe the best depiction there has ever been on screen of what it’s like to be plunged head first into the whirlpool of history.
I don’t think I learned anything either from the best TV drama of the year, the BBC’s breathtaking adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. What stays with me are not things I learned about the Tudor court but the flickering light of the uncertain and dangerous spaces, the terrible, hollow, haunted look on Mark Rylance’s face as he watched the execution of Anne Boleyn. In the same way, Saoirse Ronan’s face in her superb performance in Brooklyn continually told us how strange and changeable human emotions can be. And István Várdai’s performances of Bach’s cello suites at Kilkenny Arts Festival found the quicksilver elusiveness within the apparently mathematical structures.
One of the things I really admired in the theatre in 2015, indeed, was the ability to be inconclusive without copping out. Louise Lowe’s heartbreaking take on the first World War, Pals, at Collins Barracks, didn’t explain anything; it deepened the sense of a catastrophe beyond ultimate understanding. Theatre Club’s The Game may have had a broadly didactic intent in its exploration of prostitution, but its impact depended on its smart and unsettling use of games in a broader sense. Denis Conway’s stunning performance as the Irishman in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, at the Gate Theatre, was mesmerising because it was so terrifyingly unpredictable. In work like this what’s important is not what you learn but the experience of being thrown into an arena where you start by knowing nothing and end up knowing less.
We need this. Our society and our politics have been dominated by the mechanical, the allegedly pragmatic, the tendency to value only what can be measured and monetised – all of which is actually full of illusions, evasions and blind spots. They need an infusion of tough, uncompromising imagination, the sense of thrilling possibility that the arts somehow keep alive.
My Cultural Playlist For 2015
Abbey Spallen’s Lally the Scut: This brave, brilliant, darkly hilarious Swiftian satire on the peace process is my Irish play of the year.
Mark Rylance in Wolf Hall: One of the great screen performances. Who else could make the business of silently watching and lurking so dramatically eloquent?
John Banville’s The Blue Guitar: Very, very funny and, sentence by sentence, as hard and delicate as beaten gold.
DruidShakespeare: Garry Hynes stormed the Henry plays armed with nothing but a great ensemble and the power of pure performance.
Anne Enright’s The Green Road: Also subtly Shakespearean: King Lear as an Irish mammy. Vivid, funny, moving and, in the end, boldly poetic.
Denis Conway in The Gigli Concert: Wonderful to see a terrific actor hitting his stride so perfectly.
Keith Jarrett at the National Concert Hall: Jarrett plays for high stakes, and his solo shows can lose big. But the lightning struck, flash after flash of wonder and beauty.
Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn: Holding an entire movie without a moment of dullness, Ronan disproves Shakespeare’s line that we cannot tell “the mind’s construction from the face”. With her, we can.