Galway Arts Festival: ‘We’re back. (We never really went away.)’

Galway International Arts Festival returns to full scale with international and Irish work across the city

Fingers are crossed. “The indicators are looking good,” says John Crumlish. After two pandemic editions, Galway International Arts Festival is full steam ahead with a line-up on a par with “normality” and audiences and arts makers chomping at the bit for a late July festival in the west.

Festival chief executive Crumlish says: “There’s definitely a sense of expectation [about this year] – you get that in the street in Galway. You know [people asking] what are you doing? They are already expecting a significantly increased programme on the last two years.”

Artistic director Paul Fahy agrees that “people are just craving that large engagement of being in the same place, be it indoors or outdoors, with other people enjoying some form of art. It’s palpable”.

As we chat, the first programme since 2019 has just gone to print – it was released this week. Crumlish is dialling in from the US and artistic director Paul Fahy from, well, he’s in Harry’s in Kinnegad; perhaps also encapsulating the festival’s marriage of local and international.

That balance skewed much more towards local over the past two years when the festival went bijou and some stunning Irish productions shone. There’s a really strong Irish offering again for 2022, alongside the full return of international work. As well as Big Top gigs in Fisheries Field, the festival garden in Eyre Square is back, as are street theatre and spectacle.

This will be the fourth year of the Festival Gallery in the transformed former telephone exchange building behind the GPO. It’s looking less like a pop-up with each passing year, and An Post has committed to a gallery/cultural space within the redevelopment of its larger site; details are unclear and progress seems slow.

In a city still without adequate cultural infrastructure – 2020 European Capital of Culture notwithstanding – the gallery is one of three spaces the festival is creating for big shows. With skilled builders scarce, they started early and the gallery is already reconfigured for this year’s big visual art show, Ana Maria Pacheco’s Remember. The Brazilian-born artist, who explores control and power, made a new multi-figure polychrome wood installation for the festival, which will also show key retrospective works of hers.

Next up is building the set for True West in the Town Hall Theatre and Chicago’s Steppenwolf, one of the world’s most celebrated theatre ensembles. A new Steppenwolf generation revisits its legendary 1982 production of Sam Shepard’s play, which made its name. The production is not touring and Fahy is “really thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to have them back”; the company’s last visit to Galway was in 2007, with Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited.

The pandemic’s spotlight on local work continues. Decadent Theatre company has a big show, an adaptation by Donal Ryan of his novel From a Low and Quiet Sea, directed by Andrew Flynn; it’s the first fruit of the Galway festival’s new Elevate bursary for new work.

Following last year’s impressive epic Cogadh na Saoirse, Fibin sa Taibhdhearc returns with Muc Rí written and directed by Philip Doherty (“great writer, film-maker, great ball of energy. This is an exciting time for Irish language theatre”, says Fahy). An absurdist, radical and operatic re-imagining of a relatively unknown myth collected by Lady Gregory, Fahy calls it “a sort of rock-concert-punk-theatre” in Fr Burke Park.

Druid also returns to the festival with Sonya Kelly’s new play The Last Return, and there’s visual art in Gallery 126 and Engage studios, as well as at Interface in Connemara, and Tamara Eckhardt’s Children of Carrowbrowne, photographing Traveller halting-site life.

For its 25th anniversary, Galway Community Circus is creating an outdoor tightrope spectacle, LifeLine, “river crossings on the Claddagh basin and the Corrib,” says Fahy. It also premieres BassAlto, a visual and poetic circus show. “They’re so inspiring and are totally rooted in the community.” The project grew from a Galway 2020 plan that didn’t come to pass; the festival has been a “beneficiary”, as Crumlish puts it, of the truncated year. “A lot of companies got money that allowed them to develop, and we’re seeing the fruits of that now.”

With scant international work in the festival in 2020/2022, “we’d a heavier presence ourselves internationally over the last year,” says, Fahy, with Enda Walsh’s Medicine in Edinburgh and New York and John Gerrard’s Mirror Pavilion currently at the Sydney Biennale, “but it’s great to have a lot of international companies coming from all over the world again in Galway this July”.

Among the strong international work, both Fahy and Crumlish rave about Geoff Sobelle’s Home, a meditation on the relentless passage of time involving illusion, choreography, music and storytelling. “The first thing the audience will see is an empty stage,” describes Fahy. “And then he appears and literally within one minute, a full house will have been constructed. He’s a master illusionist. This is his first time in Galway. We’ve waited a good while to have him and I think we’ve waited well, because it’s probably his best production. It looks at a house versus what makes a home, and follows generations over a long period who’ve occupied the space. You see everything from birth, to young couples moving in, to travelling through life, and death, and what’s left behind, the spirit. It’s poignant, particularly with what’s going on right now. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, there’s a big, big cast and music.”

Crumlish reckons Home will “go down as a great festival show, and will go into festival folklore: Did you see…?”

Outdoors, giraffes are coming in the shape of French Compagnie Off’s “animal operetta”, Les Girafes: “A herd of huge 7m-tall giraffes striding through the streets, an operatic singer and a portable stage and special effects and fireworks.”

And “speaking of spectacular,” adds Fahy, “we’ve a great partnership with John Gerrard”, who is following up Mirror Pavillion with another big outdoor piece, Flare [Oceania] 2022, at Galway docks. “Like all John’s work, it’s rooted in ecology and the heating oceans and the impacts the human world has on the non-human world.” Representing ecology in hyper-distress, “the flag is made up of flare and burning flame and smoke”.

“We’re also doing our biggest indoor installation,” says Crumlish of Entanglement, which addresses the environmental, cultural and human impact of data. Presented by ANNEX artists, architects, and urban researchers at the Irish Pavilion in Venice Architecture Biennale, it’s a massive 6.4-m tall structure, adapted for an unused cavernous basement space which has previously been earmarked for development but will temporarily become Fairgreen Gallery, courtesy of a local private developer.

They’re also in transformation mode at the newly-renamed University of Galway, where, aside from First Thought Talks (from columnist Maureen Dowd to composer Eimear Noone), the sports and conferring hall is being reconfigured for opera. The final part of Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh’s trilogy, The First Child, sees Landmark and Irish National Opera in a newly-created 500-seater with a 14-piece orchestra.

Crumlish is “really looking forward to people getting back to gigs. To see the Flaming Lips back in Galway will be brilliant. Pixies, we’re delighted. Jon Hopkins. We’re gonna have a great Galway night with The Stunning and Something Happens on the middle Sunday. Anna Mullarkey will launch her first album, and we’ve a great line-up of music award nominees, from Orla Gartland to Niamh Regan to House Plants and Moxie. There’s a great Irish music scene at the moment and hopefully we’ll reflect that”.

He says Covid’s “big learning has been the challenge of reaching audiences who couldn’t come to our festival. Digital became a bigger part of our working lives. You want to remain connected to those people and they with you. It also shows up how important a really good team is. You have to be very flexible and as long as Covid’s around that uncertainty will continue”.

Fahy says “the whole country is getting back, step by step, and we want very much to be central to that recovery, from the holistic way, making sure people have a great time and engage with live art again, to the economic impact we have globally and nationally”.

Crumlish says the past two years for the festival wouldn’t have been possible “without the flexibility and generosity of artists and companies, who every time went, yeah, that’s grand. And also funders and sponsors who went yep, that’s okay. We’ll stay with it.” Fahy: “And our team has been very resilient.”

He says they want to “create the whole new sense of joy and wonder for audiences. It’s a celebration of returning to normal.”

Crumlish: “We’re back. Because we never really went away. But it’s a big beast of a festival. We’re back at full-size indoors, we’re back outdoors. We’re doing large-scale work. We want to make Galway our playground once again. It is the stage upon which we can play, we’ll be playing all over the parish and playing in all sizes and shapes.”

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