Galway International Arts Festival 2019: It has it licked

Burt Bacharach, Gravity & Other Myths, Reem Karssli and Dael Orlandersmith

Galway International Arts Festival: Burt Bacharach. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure

Galway International Arts Festival: Burt Bacharach. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure


Crossing the Salmon Weir Bridge in Galway at night, it is balmy and magical: not so much the pale moon rising above the green mountain as the dark-blue big top, lit up at night, rising out of the River Corrib. The sight signifies arts-festival time, just as it gives way to race week.

Out of Chaos...

One of the highlights of the second week of Galway International Arts Festival was the Australian Gravity & Other Myths contemporary-circus company returning with a new show, Out of Chaos..., which features eight amazingly skilled dancer-acrobats.

Lighting is low, mostly flashlight, with a simple set and hardly any props, and the distinctive, telling-you-a-secret sound is electronica and voice mixed by a ringmaster. He occasionally mics up the voices of the acrobats, exposing flashes of their thoughts, whether random or related to the performance (which can be amusing or insightful).

Out of Chaos... is a sort of Out of the Primordial Mud, towards extreme physical achievement of the human body. The odd occasion they miss or mistime only underlines the skill in a show with many intake-of-breath moments and a lot of humour.

Galway International Arts Festival: Mieke Lizotte of Gravity & Other Myths. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure
Galway International Arts Festival: Mieke Lizotte of Gravity & Other Myths. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure

Now Is the Time to Say Nothing

Now Is the Time to Say Nothing is an affecting video and interactive immersive installation. About a dozen of us sit backwards in a circle, in comfortable old chairs in a darkened room, looking at our own individual TVs. The screens show instructions and snippets of video in the style of an intimate scrapbook, by the Syrian artist Reem Karssli as she films her daily experience of the Syrian war and life in Damascus. The project evolves as she is contacted by teenagers in the UK looking, like wartime pen pals, for the human story behind the news, an act that connects us, her audience, too.

The video captures both the monotony of being stuck at home, unable to go out, and the terror of daily life. When we are asked to move to the centre and take action, the reality and fear are moving, and ultimately the experience is bleak but effective. “I don’t have hope. I need to say I don’t have hope. I used to say I hoped that things will be better. Now I don’t have hope,” says Karssli, who ultimately declares, “I want to make art about something better.”

Until the Flood

It may not be something better, but Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood is both moving and angering. The Pulitzer-nominated writer and performer’s play is based on extensive interviews following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in St Louis.

Orlandersmith tells the story and brings an entire community to life through the eyes and words of eight peripheral characters. The result is incredibly nuanced and thoughtful.

Her script steps back without judgment, showing not telling. We meet a retired black schoolteacher, who recalls the “sundown laws”; a white cop shocked that black teenagers call him “honky” while he’s carrying, “like they want to die”; a cocky teen who rages, and eventually admits he doesn’t want to die but does want a father; a black barber mystified by the posh girls seeking to interview him about being “a victim” – “black men are not children. I am not a child.”

Orlandersmith’s characterisations are superb, with minimal costume indicators. Young, old, male, female, black, white: all the characters are all utterly believable, offering different truths. In a little over an hour she exposes both the personal and the wider community story of the shooting, connecting to the wider story of race in the United States.

Theatre and the Personal

After performing all week at the Mick Lally Theatre, Orlandersmith offers illuminating reflections on theatre and the personal in a public interview with Patrick Lonergan, professor of theatre at NUI Galway, as part of a second packed weekend of eclectic and stimulating First Thought Talks, programmed by Catriona Crowe and loosely themed around borders.

Orlandersmith, who says “all of us have bias within us”, kept her distance from her interviewees, with the attitude that “I don’t have the right to portray you, but as a person this affects me.” Some of her characters are amalgams, and others she did not interview but heard about and observed, including a white man we witness cultivating racial hatred in his young son, which is a chilling portrayal.

In the aftermath of the shooting, some people wanted “their own sense of justice at the expense of someone else’s truth. Only Darren Wilson knows what happened in those last moments.” Both young men’s backgrounds were similar, she observes, with inadequate, irresponsible parenting and “generational abuse and neglect”. In looking at the events, she points out that their background “plays a role in how people respond in the world”. The play deals with complex issues and problematic characters, she says, and in writing, “If you don’t love your characters you have to understand them, or they’ll be caricatures”.

You have to come to work with an open heart, she says. “People ask about my message. I’m not here to give you a message. Who the hell am I to give you messages? My job as a theatre worker is to be as concise and as informative as I can. You either take the information or you don’t. These people who hold themselves up as examples or positive role models. Positive role model!” She is scathing. “I’m not your mother! Hopefully it’s a leeway to stuff, but for somebody to tell what you need to do or how to think, it’s patronising.”

They discuss labels. “We’re in a funny time now, where we’re learning a different language. We’re using words like ‘they’. In five or 10 years from now it’ll be cool, but right now we’re in a time where people are writing plays where they feel they have to represent... so you’re having a lot of trans plays, and a lot of political stuff, right now.

“It’s important anybody who’s been ostracised, whatever it is, that you don’t take on the very bias that’s been done on to you. You can be transgender, or whatever you are, and you can write about, oh, Led Zeppelin, all kinds of things. If one is of colour, you don’t have to simply write about race. If you are a woman you don’t have to write just about being a woman. Because if you continue to do that you are playing to the very bias that’s helping to oppress you. It doesn’t have to be limited to that.”

Galway International Arts Festival: the Big Top. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure
Galway International Arts Festival: the Big Top. Photograph: Andrew Downes/Xposure

One Year on from Repeal the 8th

Another panel talk explored the year since the referendum vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and so allow abortion. Senator Ivana Bacik, the Labour Senator and Reid professor of criminal law at Trinity College Dublin; the lecturer and abortion-rights activist Sinéad Kennedy; and Gaye and Gerry Edwards, who were abandoned by the State when they had a fatal foetal diagnosis of anencephaly, also reflected on life before the referendum with the talk’s moderator, the broadcaster Marian Richardson.

Kennedy recalled that “7,500 women were travelling every year” to have abortions abroad. “You forget how hard it was to get information for a very long time. After 1995 information was legal, but it was still difficult.” Repealing was not a foregone conclusion: Bacik said it was not predictable until the final few weeks of campaigning.

They discussed the significance of the Citizens’ Assembly, with people “brought together and listening to evidence and taking on board rational arguments”, and its role in changing public opinion. Kennedy was suspicious of it initially – “I thought it was a delaying tactic. It was a delaying tactic.” But it was also “extraordinary to see people change their minds over the course of those weekends. You could see it from the type of questions they were asking” experts.

Gerry Edwards movingly described their experience years before, when they received a diagnosis that their baby could not live after birth. The only hint about why they would have to go through with the pregnancy was being told that prenatal care was “all we can do in this jurisdiction”. He observed that “jurisdiction is not a medical word”.

Gaye Edwards spoke calmly and with chilling emotion about recent anti-abortion demonstrations outside the National Maternity Hospital, on Holles Street in Dublin. “Anyone who has ever had to put a child into one of those tiny white coffins wouldn’t use it as a prop, or even dream of putting it on the ground,” she said.

Gerry Edwards asserted that “the right to access healthcare is superior to the right to conscientious objection” and observed that “even hospitals that proclaim not to be Catholic institutions still have the iconography in the corridors”.

Burt Bacharach

Offering hope for the future is Burt Bacharach, whose 50 years of Grammy-winning songwriting could hardly be summed up in a single performance, although the 91-year-old makes a good stab at covering a wide selection of his hundreds of songs, and had the sold-out audience in the Big Top eating out of his hand. His voice may be slightly shaky, but he is in fine fettle, standing by the grand piano to chat at length or playing as his fine singers and band take the lead.

So what do we get from this astonishing songwriter? So many that some are in medleys – I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, I Say a Little Prayer, Make It Easy on Yourself, Close to You, Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do) and more, more, more.

He’s far from going gentle into that good night. He introduces Live to See Another Day, which he wrote with Rudy Pérez in reaction to school shootings because “what’s going on in our country is brutally alarming”. And he talks about writing With a Voice “in the second year of our president’s tenure. There’s a cloud over our heads. Every day I wake up and think it can’t be true. Then something else happens.

“I wrote this as a resistance. If I had waited till the third year of his presidency it would be more piercing, edgier, angrier. So we have to sing it as written.” He said that Donald Trump “is screwing up all our relationships in the world, except perhaps Turkey. Where am I going to live if he gets four more years?”

Towards the end he takes the mic himself to sing some favourites: The Look of Love, Alfie, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, A House Is Not a Home. At the end he brings on “our daughter Raleigh” and the Irish singer Paddy Hanna, who played support, to sing again. Everybody came out of that tent singing, and uplifted.

Walsh Waste

And lest anyone think Galway International Arts Festival doesn’t have enough Walshes – there’s the writer Enda Walsh, with his latest, Waiting Room, and The Same, featuring magnificent performances from the sisters Eileen and Catherine Walsh – we spy another, in the form of Walsh Waste.

The festival’s long-time waste partner – it supplied the first bin, in 1978 – and working on rubbish, loos, bins and recycling, it ramped up this year with a recyclable festival cup at the Big Top. It also supplied almost two tonnes of cardboard again for Olivier Grossetête’s The People Build, to construct the pop-up cathedral basilica in Eyre Square – and took it all away afterwards.

End of the day, end of an ever-besting-itself festival, and the big clear-up. It has it licked, this festival.

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