Risks of new look festival


It is now widely recognised that this year's 35th Belfast Festival at Queen's is like no other that has been mounted during its long, colourful life. A new programme director, with innovative, international vision; a budget that has almost doubled since last year (£630,000 up to £1.26 million); new artistic partnerships forged with the Waterfront Hall, the Ulster Orchestra and the Ormeau Baths Gallery; one-off creative partnerships with the RSC, the Tricycle Theatre, the Royal National Theatre; world and Irish premiere events . . . all this has resulted in the most far-reaching and daring festival programme to have been dangled before a local community, which knows what it likes and likes what it knows.

The challenges thrown down by such a programme cut several ways, as crystallised by the chorus of voices coming from within Festival House itself. At Saturday evening's official opening in the Great Hall of Queen's University, executive director, Robert Agnew, reflected rather ruefully on the Belfast public's tardiness in coming out and booking tickets, particularly for events with which they are unfamiliar - and there are plenty of those.

He underlined that the enhancement of the festival and the addition of large capacity venues like the Waterfront, have given the organisers something of an uphill task. Meanwhile, programme director, Sean Doran, while acknowledging the degree of risktaking which he has imposed upon his public, is quietly upbeat.

He declares himself encouraged by the box-office take-up over the first weekend and is now setting his sights on those whom he hopes will travel to attend events, which simply cannot be seen elsewhere in the UK or, indeed, Europe.

"We had a cracking first weekend. Who would have believed that we would have virtually sold out the Waterfront Hall's main house with Mahler 2 for the opening concert? The literature programme is already proving one of the real success stories of the festival - and that was an entirely new initiative, that might or might not have worked. The Guinness Jazz Weekend was great, particularly in the new, bigger venues. Tickets are going slowly at present for Robert Wilson's Saints And Singing but I am hopeful that they will pick up, as they did for Phaedra, given the international significance of the event.

"This is a transitional festival - the first in a four-year strategy. On the showing to date, I'm far from downcast. What the weekend has shown is that this kind of festival is possible - and actually very probable."