Galway International Arts Festival: Apres le deluge - the show goes on

The festival hit high notes in its first week with high-profile shows, but it’s the other shows that flesh out a festival

It’s hard for a festival to take over a city and make its presence felt. The Galway International Arts Festival was everywhere in the city centre over a crowded summer weekend.

As people queued to get into the Sam Jinks' exhibition in the pop-up gallery around the corner, all of Eyre Square belonged to the festival, with acrobatics from Les P’Tits Bras, and work on the People Build construction of a giant cardboard version of the cathedral roof, postponed for a day because of Friday’s soft-day-thank-god.

A silent disco walking tour of Galway is not for the self-conscious. People smiled and laughed and photographed our dancing horde led by the purple-synthetic-jumpsuited Australian host. Mr Dudu (aka David Naylor) skilfully and respectfully negotiated the city’s action, incorporating us into buskers singing Staying Alive, and orchestrating our alternate lines of Bohemian Rhapsody across Shop St at each other. Whatever it looks like to the onlooker, it’s the best of crack to do, and a great festival concept.

Earlier Saturday morning on Eyre Square, walking to NUI Galway - for Mary Robinson’s thoughtful, positive take on climate change, the start of the First Thoughts talks - a large Abbey Theatre truck navigated the square, presumably carrying the striking CitySong set, ready for its opening last night.

As the weekend got going, spirits were raised when the festival hosted a rock God in St Nicholas’ church, singing spirituals (as well as bluegrass, folk and many fine and lost songs). Robert Plant is an eclectic song collector and musicologist, and the former Led Zeppelin singer’s new ensemble is an altogether more melodic exploration.

Into his 70s and still exquisite of voice, he and the equally fine voiced Suzi Dian led an acoustic trio of musicians in Saving Grace, who play intimate venues rather than rock stadia, with gorgeous harmonies and voice combinations. All five singers and musicians finish up huddled round the mic in the beautiful 13th century church, singing We Bid You goodnight a cappella. Food for the soul.

GIAF 2019 hit high notes in its first week with its high profile shows, including the startling, disturbing (musically and thematically) opera premiere Least Like The Other, about Rosemary Kennedy; the out of this world heart-pumping anarchy of Dead Dog in a Suitcase, and the evocative, intriguing dinner party ensemble, with Joycean overtones, at the centre of Druid’s premiere of Epiphany, by US playwright Brian Watkins.

But it’s the other shows and surprises that flesh out a festival.

Director Andrew Flynn’s revisiting of Eugene O’Brien’s Eden, for Decadent Theatre Company, reminds us of the bleak, broken marriage powerfully evoked in the 2001 play (people smoked in pubs back then!); the new production sees Patrick Ryan and Lesley Conroy utterly believable in this accomplished production that also paints a picture of midlands small town life.

Another take on smalltown worlds, this time some “rustic border pzazz” in the borderland Tyreelin in the 1970s, is a new musical-in-the-making. Based on Patrick McCabe’s novel Breakfast on Pluto, about gender non-conforming Patrick/Pussy Braden, it was presented as Landmark/GIAF’s work-in-progress, and has progressed far along indeed, into a very fleshed out performance, with multiple scenes and a dozen songs. It is blackly humorous and very entertaining, scripted by Bob Kelly and directed by Des Kennedy, with Duke Special’s songs in a wild and wonderful mixture of styles (including an infectious song This Fucking Town).

Seven actors and a keyboard player, with costumes and set indicators, held the audience in the palm of their hands: Edgy, funny, foul-mouthed and black-black-black. There was a full house, and standing ovation, in the full Black Box, with the rain pelting down outside, for an 11pm show at €20 a pop - not bad for a work in progress. The finished product will be at GIAF 2020 (mark diaries now).

More art-in-the-making was to be seen in Druid’s annual Debuts, and in a one-off rehearsed reading of Made in Earnest, a musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest by Justin McCarthy, Arthur Riordan and Charlie McBride. The cast of eight (including Helen Gregg’s Brexiteer-flavoured Lady Bracknell), a four piece playing a live score, and ticklesome, witty songs in keeping with the spirit of the play, make for a very enjoyable taster of a delightful show.

Wilde features too in Galway Youth Theatre’s The Star Child, staging Mary Elizabeth Burke Kennedy’s adaptation of his short stories. The cast of 15 inhabit the stage as characters and a chorus of animals (with Petra Breathnach’s maskwork), for Wilde’s timeless stories with strong moral messages. A lively, confident and imaginative production directed by Andrew Flynn.

Another Oscar Wilde adaptation is Salómae, Ériu and An Taibhdhearc’s Irish language (with subtitles) and dance version of the biblical tale of debauchery. Breandán de Gallaí’s invigorating choreography mixes Irish, contemporary, tap and dashes of other dance styles; while the dialogue is slightly ponderous, the whole is striking and powerful.

The quality of street entertainment is up several notches for the festival, with multiple styles of busking on offer

Least Like the Other’s startling use of multimedia, and discord in music and format, creates a multilayered exploration of the mind, while Enda Walsh plays with minds in a different way, in his beautifully written, complex, and funny The Same, which also allows always pleasurable opportunity to see Walsh sisters Catherine and Eileen perform together in the award-winning production. Picking up on ghost memories in Galway’s sadly now unused airport, it becomes a kind of residential institution with audience and cast together, sharing the mind of the protagonist Lisa.

The latest of Walsh’s series of “rooms” has been created over in NUIG, where Waiting Room embodies the experience of Aoife Duffin’s character - whose voice tells her story of never having loved till she had a child, followed by the pain of loss, in the bland space beside an unspecified medical treatment room, where we too wait.

The deluge was no match for Guru Dudu, who ploughed on regardless, grooving through the streets, sowing joy in the rain

The quality of street entertainment is up several notches for the festival, with multiple styles of busking on offer, from bagpipes or a string trio, to an escapologist or an auld lad with a cut-down fiddle and trumpet attached. And running alongside the festival is a Summer Drama Festival, with nine productions from local theatre companies at NUIG, from Little John Nee to Beluga Theatre’s puppetry.

Seemingly first up and last to bed is GIAF festival artistic director Paul Fahy, cool and calm and everywhere simultaneously, like a Galwegian Where’s Wally. Saturday’s summer became a wet November on Sunday, with heavy rainfall, weather warnings and flash floods. Nothwithstanding, actor Kate Mulgrew drew a great crowd to hear her talk about her relationship with her parents, the subject of her memoir.

The French acrobats Les P’Tits Bras’ show was cancelled, and the cardboard Cathedral basilica turned into the leaning tower of Eyre Square as it listed to the side with the weight of water. Fleeing the torrential rain, we missed joining the promised demolition, but apparently it happened, because a short time later there was not a trace to be seen of the 23-metre high structure.

The bar and tent at the Festival Garden closed for the evening but the deluge was no match for Guru Dudu, who ploughed on regardless, grooving through the streets, sowing joy in the rain.

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