Culture Shock: The voices that aren’t being heard in the arts speak volumes

In Ireland, North and South, wordlessness and absences have a deeper meaning

It all seemed harmless enough. A sparse stage with a cartoon desert backdrop was steadily becoming populated with handmade wooden contraptions: a forest of pop-up Christmas trees; a xylophone crafted out of a tree trunk; a rudimentary cow created from carpentry. And then something sinister happened.

One of the two young men responsible for building up this playful world opened a box, produced a handgun, and aimed it squarely at his friend’s face. He held it long enough, and steady enough, for the gesture to gather in menace. And then he took a big bite out of it. It was chocolate.

Throwing its shards into the audience for To Break, a recent show at the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival from Belgian company Robbert&Frank/ Frank&Robbert, they put the firearm verifiably beyond use, a hungry act of decommissioning.

It’s not easy to say what the performers intended with the sequence, because there was little articulated context. Like a number of performances at this year’s festival, an encouragingly energetic reboot of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s following the university’s withdrawal, its actors didn’t speak a word. In Belfast, a gun onstage is almost always a loaded symbol. Here, though, it came with no comment.


Allied with Royston Abel's The Kitchen, a theatrical display in which a husband and wife prepare vats of the South Indian dessert Payasam before a simmering gallery of drummers, and Hallo, an absurdist performance by the Swiss choreographer and clown Martin Zimmermann, in which all structures were in a state of giddy collapse, it suggested a certain fascination with wordlessness.

That, the festival director Richard Wakely admitted, was more by accident than design (and the festival had several other spoken word options with plenty to say). But in a fractious political environment, where audiences can fatigue of Troubles-related theatre and Stormont is once again in stasis, keeping schtum can sometimes seem like a deliberate move.

The universalism of this year’s programme highlights and its keen international emphasis – with a focus on India and Mexico – were unlikely to get anyone’s back up. It wasn’t quite a case of “Whatever you say, say nothing”, but there can be something revealing, even political, in the right to remain silent.

Many Northern Irish artists will have found it galling, though, that at a recent Queen's University event called Voices for the Voiceless: Culture and Resistance, that the Northern Minister for Culture Arts and Leisure, Caral Ní Chuilín, described artists retreating from politics.

Speaking of Antigone as a model of resistance with particular resonance for a Republican woman, and the declaration, in poetry, by Bobby Sands that The Men of Art have lost their heart, Ní Chuilín asked, "Why in the mouth of some of the biggest human rights abuses, in my opinion, did the whole notion of resistance not transcend to art, and why did art turn its back on communities?"

In a sector already struggling with swingeing budget cuts, this was insult to injury. The resistance of the hunger strikers was the subject of all kinds of art – from placards to murals, to a contemporary fascination with body in physical performance, to more direct and critical responses towards political martyrdom in plays such as Anne Devlin's Ourselves Alone or Maeve Murphy's 2001 film Silent Grace. But, leaving that aside, it seemed more salient to ask that if art was expected to engage with communities, surely it should be properly supported to do so.

The Lyric Theatre, The Mac and Tinderbox, among others, all have community engagement and outreach programmes, and each received funding cuts this year ranging from significant to savage, stemming from the Northern Ireland Executive’s budget and its minuscule allotment to culture.

Just as bad, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland Sustainability Programme has been discontinued for the same budgetary reasons. One consequence is that an organisation such as Outburst Queer Arts Festival – which begins its ninth festival next month for a long under-served community – is more uncertain about its future.

Ní Chuilín spoke of access to culture for socially excluded groups, but with such a lack of coherence around funding policy, who’s turning their backs on whom?

Artists, moreover, tend to resist making art a political instrument and for good reasons – propaganda and pageantry make for awful art.

At a public lecture in Trinity College given recently by the historian Roy Foster, exploring the challenges around commemorating Ireland's revolutionary decade, he described how previous commemorations have attempted to "resolutely uncomplicate the historical narrative in the interest of present political realities". He was more optimistic this would be avoided for the centenary.

The Abbey Theatre's programme, revealed a few days later, largely bore this out. Guided by revivals of Plough and the Stars and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, two plays viewing the traumas of 1916 from different perspectives, it's neither triumphalist, disrespectful nor simplistic.

And matched with new plays to explore the legacy of the revolution through contemporary social issues, from poverty to sectarianism, it seems an appropriately questioning response to an event born from dissatisfaction and a desire to create something better.

You might have hoped for fresher material – Plough, for all its relevance, is very regularly produced by the Abbey – and, with just one woman among the 10 playwrights featured, a gender balance better representative of the nation.

That, however, is also sadly reflective of many of the stilled ambitions of the Rising, which could still be advanced, where absences – and silences – speak volumes.