Something strange has been happening. Stranger than a global pandemic? It is linked. As people muse on how long it will take for artists to make work responding to the state we’ve all been in, the reverse is happening. I seem to be responding to all art as if it has Covid related concerns at its core. The programme for the Galway International Arts Festival, released on Tuesday, immediately attracts my attention with its image of John Gerrard’s leaf figure from Mirror Pavilion on the cover.
Leaf Work was part of a pair of pieces by Gerrard, commissioned by the Festival as part of Galway 2020. If ever a European Capital of Culture could have had worse fortune than Galway 2020 is another story, but some legacy projects remain. Corn Work, the first part of Mirror Pavilion was installed at Claddagh Quay last September. Showing straw-clad dancers moving through an endless ritual, it nagged at the senses, tugging at ideas about gathering and appeasing the gods of nature.
Leaf Work, due to be sited at Derrigimlagh Bog in October was postponed, as Ireland entered Level 3, and then Level 5 restrictions. Now Gerrard's lone leaf-clad figure, pacing an outline in the virtual landscape on one side of a huge mirrored cube, seems itself to be haunted with Covid concerns. The artist pitches it as "a lament for the effects of […] accelerating human technologies upon non-human worlds", but to me the overriding feeling is of loneliness, isolation, and a feeling of being out of step with the patterns of the world. The sense of being very small in the face of natural forces has dug deeper into my mind and soul throughout the pandemic.
This will be Gerrard's third installation at the Galway Festival. Another Festival regular, Enda Walsh, has a new play called Medicine premiering with Landmark Productions. Presented as a Work in Progress last year instead of the planned full-scale performance, the play explores, via an all star cast: Clare Barrett, Aoife Duffin and Domhnall Gleeson, with jazz percussionist Sean Carpio; how we treat those we call mentally ill. The socially distanced audience will be seated in specially designed booths in the Black Box Theatre, turning the need to be apart into a new landscape of separation. "LA had reopened," says GIAF Artistic Director, Paul Fahy, of the juggling and commitment it took for the cast to remain available a year later, given the Hollywood film industry having swung back into action, bringing Gleeson in particular with it.
Mental health has always been an issue, for a long time shoved under Ireland’s collective emotional carpet, but again it feels amplified. With apologies to all those who are suffering at any degree, I currently feel raw to spotlights on mental health, as if they are being shone directly on me. Every year, Walsh also creates a Room at Galway. This year will see Room #8. As with its predecessors, you go into a space, aware of being part of a very small group, and listen to a pre-recorded dramatic monologue, narrating uncomfortable stories of other, unknowable and unfathomably distant lives. Covid lockdown much? Very.
Maybe that's the thing about really good art. It is timeless, and yet always somehow pressingly relevant. The GIAF 2021 programme is cleverly constructed. There are events and shows that can take place no matter what, and some, such as Druid's adaptation of Chekov's The Seagull by Thomas Kilroy, that will be streamed for view on demand. "You have to be thorough, and careful," says Fahy. You also have to re-cut your cloth. Despite the major increase in support to the Arts Council, GIAF Chief Executive John Crumlish notes that more than fifty per cent of GIAF's income was formerly through the box office.
It may have been a major increase, but Fahy is keen to point out that it also underlined how low Irish arts funding had been in comparison to other European states. “And did we ever as a nation rely as much on our culture to carry us through as we have over the past fifteen months?” he asks, talking of engaging with podcasts, with theatre online, reading books. “For sanity purposes…” he says. “Hopefully people now realise what the arts and arts workers contribute to making us such a great nation. Hopefully the Arts Council will continue to remain at the new level. The outcome, the bang for your buck has been fantastic.”
“Culture online was the big impact,” says Crumlish. “In my case I listened to an awful lot of music. But Covid has opened the possibility of streaming culture, and that genie is not going back in to the bottle.”
“We don’t envisage big productions without live streaming elements in the future,” says Fahy, agreeing that while this has the potential to reach a vast audience, it is also is a whole other way of thinking when it comes to staging a play. The First Thought series of talks are now also a Podcast series, which began in July 2020, he adds. Galway’s Big Top gigs are once again off the agenda, and the big international companies won’t be visiting, although the Festival’s own world-wide connections and partnerships do mean that work made in Galway will tour. Medicine will travel, initially to the Edinburgh International Festival in August.
But how do you balance the needs of the best art and artists, who thrive on pushing boundaries, in these days when our lives are currently made safe by boundaries? Arts people used to exercise their ingenuity by getting round restrictions, now they have to work within them, while still breaking new ground. In this vein, Brú Theatre’s Ar Ais Arís looks interesting. It is an in-person VR experience, out on the Salthill Promenade. Don your headset, and be careful not to trip over, while being immersed in texts from Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Pádraic Ó Conaire and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.
Or head out to the Lough Inagh Valley Hatchery, where Broken Vessels is a pilot for what arts group Interface hope will become a biennial event. Irish artists Louise Manifold, Anne Marie Deacy, Noelle Gallagher are joined by South African artists Christine Dixie, Lesego Rampolokeng and Monique Pelser, in a setting Fahy describes as like something out of the opening of a James Bond movie.
Fahy and Crumlish know all about exploring Galway for new spots for their visual arts exhibitions. From shopping centres to fish sheds, the team have got around Galway's lack of a major exhibition space by transforming unused sites into world-class venues. Crumlish describes the moment, every time, when the guys in suits would appear, and he would know that that particular venue's days were numbered. But now there has been a commitment to keep at least part of the An Post site at Eglington Street / William Street, first converted by GIAF in 2019, as a civic arts space. Fahy describes being "giddy with excitement" when he first saw it, little imagining that An Post would come to stipulate that part of it would remain dedicated to the arts.
Fahy and Crumlish are coy about who might run the space in the future – development of the project is out for tender at the moment, but as Crumlish says that he anticipates his days of ferreting out abandoned sheds and warehouses “will be confined to the annals of Galway folklore”. I start to wonder if he might regret those times when they’re gone. Another Gerrard – John’s sister, Joy, will feature at the William Street gallery, with a major installation of her Precarious Freedom project, currently at Drogheda’s High Lanes. The show will then tour to Kilkenny’s Butler Gallery in 2022, with new work being made for each venue.
Inspired by Brexit, Black Lives Matter and Women’s Equality marches, Joy Gerrard’s work has always been powerful, but Covid has amplified my sense of anxiety at seeing massing crowds, in this instance depicted in black ink. Looking at the work now communicates a feeling of the latent power of people, the unpredictability of circumstance, the threat we all live under, and yet also the force of collective good when we put our minds to something, together. It’s time to go to Galway.
Highlights at this year’s festival
The live shows of Enda Walsh’s Medicine are sold out, but you can still plan to stream them, and there’s plenty more to choose from.
Blindness One of the first productions on stage when theatres reopened in the UK, you listen to Donmar Warehouse adaptation of José Saramago's dystopian novel on headphones seated in a specially designed set. Voiced by Juliet Stevenson it's all about a pandemic. Hmm.
After Love Dance, music and words come together as Stephanie Dufresne's latest project premieres at the Bank of Ireland Theatre at NUI Galway, live show TBC until we work out how music as part of performance fits into the guidelines.
Leathanta Sona [Happy Days] Company SJ's as gaeilge production of Beckett's play sees the action take place on the extraordinary stone-flagged plains of Inis Óirr. Is being buried up to your waist a metaphor for lockdown? Take a leaf from Winne and Willie played by Bríd Ní Neachtain and Raymond Keane and you might win through.
These are Little Kingdoms In 2019, director Ian FitzGibbon had a go at putting Kevin Barry's words on show with his film Dark Lies the Island. Now it's Decadent Theatre's turn, directed by Andrew Flynn at the Town Hall Theatre.
Volcano Luke Murphy's performance is a series of experimental dance shows based on living in a small space… Sounds familiar? Add elements of online broadcast, and a promise that you can tailor an individual experience at Nun's Island Theatre.
Elevate A new commissioning strand of bursaries from GIAF kicks off with Joselle Ntumna and Beulah Ezeugo, for Éireann and I, a digital archive of the experiences of Black migrants in Ireland; Kirstin Fontanella with new solo dance based on Irish step dancing; director Andrew Flynn and writer Donal Ryan workshopping a new play adapted from Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea; Michael Chang’s Cuimhne Uisce, live performance of Chang’s compositions, with video; and singer/songwriter Niamh Regan’s new music In The Meantime. These projects will appear this year and next.