2012: the highs and the lows


THEATRE: Highlight of the year in your areaDruidMurphy was a riveting and shattering journey that led from the London Cultural Olympiad through Ireland and across the world. That was a suitable trajectory for this coruscating trio of Tom Murphy plays, stunningly directed by Garry Hynes, which traced a history of emigration and dispossession through drink, violence and hunger.

Honouring the intoxication and intelligence of Conversations on a Homecoming (right), A Whistle in the Dark and Famine, the director, designers and performers plunged deeper into a history and cycle of hope and collapse, in which Murphy’s voice sounded more urgent than ever.

Highlights in other artsEmma Martin’s Dogs was an exquisite and raw contemporary dance piece twisting polite society into a chaos of gender collisions, fraying classical music and sensationally choreographed panic attacks.

I liked the similarities between the utterly dissimilar Frank Ocean and Fiona Apple who both bailed on their tours this year and each made fantastic, adventurous albums on a timeless, lovelorn theme. Electro-pixie Grimes excelled at a beautifully coherent Forbidden Fruit festival.

You could look at Lenny Abrahamson’s brilliant film What Richard Did in many ways – as a complex reflection on real-life horror, or a piece that dared to take the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly milieu seriously – but in its devastating depiction of loosening responsibility, it was this year’s most resonant and finely wrought tragedy in any medium. I also loved Rian Johnson’s witty, surprisingly moving sci-fi film Looper and the recently discovered lost Shakespeare play of Arthur Phillips’s dazzling novel The Tragedy of Arthur.

Biggest disappointmentDisappointment is too weak a word. Government plans to merge national cultural institutions, as well as to absorb Culture Ireland into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, had been persuasively challenged for a year in these pages, by the National Campaign for the Arts, in the Seanad and the Dáil. In October, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, decided to press ahead with them anyway, without detailing any cost benefit, and in potential conflict with Michael D Higgins’s National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997.

Biggest surpriseEvery second thing that happened in the Abbey: a flawed but fascinating new electropop musical in Alice in Funderland (in which Sarah Greene gave one of the best performances of the year). Its temporary closure for asbestos removal. A Tom Murphy production, The House, in which Annabelle Comyn directed a tremendous cast with such depth of perception that it withstood comparison to Druid. The quiet acquisition of the building next door, putting to rest years of contentious speculation as to where the Abbey might move. The best new play of the year in Owen McCafferty’s Quietly . . . Say what you will about the National Theatre, it’s never dull.

What will you be glad to see the back of?The Joycean stampede. The year’s theatre began with a hasty Ulysses adaptation, Gibraltar, and ended with Frank McGuinness’s mercifully longer-developing dramatisation of the novella The Dead at the Abbey. In between, we’ve had a rake of works inspired by Dubliners, another Ulysses, try-outs for his only play, Exiles, and an adaptation of Finnegans Wake. “We are still learning to be Joyce’s contemporaries,” a critic once wrote, and this has been a year spent cramming.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .Sincerity and whimsy. It will take some getting used to for those of us fluent in the irony and experimentations of Pan Pan’s A Doll House or the zany erudition of Bush Moukarzel’s Souvenir, but popular new works from Collapsing Horse’s Monster/Clock by Eoghan Quinn or Ross Dungan’s The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle for 15th Oak suggest an emerging audience hungry for simple storytelling, homespun design, puppetry and acoustic guitar arpeggios. Milk and cookies too, perhaps.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedEveryone should have made more noise about Globe Motel, an adventurous promenade performance from Dublin Shakespeare Society and Belfast’s Bart Players for the RSC’s Open Stages programme, which smashed eight Shakespeare plays together and sent their scenes – and the audience – scattering through Findlater’s church, kitchens, bedrooms and various nooks for some commendably playful classic crossover opportunities. Peter Crawley


Highlight of the year in your areaIt was a wonderful year for films beamed down from the planet Barmy. But the most deliciously peculiar movie of the year was surely Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (left). A meta-thriller set in the world of Italian horror cinema, the picture used sound to greater effect than any picture since The Conversation.

Highlights in other artsSwans, one of the most gloomily cacophonous of American post-punk groups, returned with a gorgeously horrid wall of structured noise entitled The Seer. Enormously long and scarier than a sinkful of leeches, the LP is easily the best of their long career.

Biggest disappointmentOn initial consideration, Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Prometheus – a quasi-prequel to Alien – came across as an interesting misstep. The more one thought about it, however, the more disordered and philosophically moronic it seemed. Leave it at that, Ridley.

Biggest surpriseUp to this point, I had regarded Léos Carax, the director of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, as a tedious show-off with delusions of adequacy. Yet Holy Motors – premiered at Cannes to uncharacteristic cheers – turned out to be a busy, surreal classic. Denis Lavant was astonishing in the lead.

What will you be glad to see the back of?Film adaptations of popular novels that – for artistic reasons, you understand – split themselves into two, or even three, parts. If the trend continues at this pace, the film version of the 50 Shades of Grey novel will actually appear in 50 instalments. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is on release now.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .Exactly the same as the past. James Bond thrillers and Star Wars epics from now until the heat death of the universe.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedBen Wheatley’s Sightseers followed through on the director’s superb Kill List to deliver English comedy of the blackest hue. The film performed adequately. But it should have been an out-and-out smash. Donald Clarke


Highlight of the year in your areaAlbums from Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Dr John, Laurel Halo, John Talabot, Seamus Fogarty, Spook of the Thirteenth Lock, Miguel and Delorentos kept me in clover throughout the year. There were also fantastic nights out with Dr John and his Locked Down band in Brooklyn, New York, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne throwdown (right), Paul Simon revisiting Graceland, Chic’s disco blitz in Galway and Electric Picnic turns from The xx and Liam O’Flynn, Andy Irvine, Paddy Glackin and Donal Lunny. Also, hearing Bruce Springsteen deliver a fantastic, powerful keynote address at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, was something to savour.

Highlights in other artsThe giant landscapes at David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture at London’s Royal Academy provided a feast of endorphins; Alice Maher’s Becoming mid-career round-up at Imma was powerful; and Alice In Funderland was a gaggle of giggles. Filmwise, Beasts Of the Southern Wild stayed with me for days afterwards. On the TV, there were tremendous dramas such as Luck, Boss, Blackout, Borgen and Line Of Duty, plus David Simon’s Treme made me long for a return trip to New Orleans.

Biggest disappointment?The kerfuffle that followed the Swedish House Mafia show at the Phoenix Park. Those who thought we’d seen an end to a genre of music getting the blame for antisocial behaviour caused by binge drinking had to think again.

Biggest surprise?The huge buzz when Spotify launched in Ireland in November. We knew that punters were increasingly switching to streaming services, favouring them over downloads and physical sales, but the OMG and OMFG reaction to the Swedish service officially turning on the tap for Irish music fans was quite an eye-opener.

What will you be glad to see the back of?People thinking TV talent shows such as The X Factor, American Idol and The Voice have anything to do with music.

I have seen the future and it is . . .A music business with massive class divides between the haves (who have a career making music) and the have-nots (who don’t and wish they had). The ongoing changes in how the music industry works – and the live industry will also begin to suffer in 2013 and beyond – means we’ll see less and less of the former and more and more of the latter.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedIn a year when female singers dominated the release schedules – come on down Jessie Ware, Emeli Sandé and Lianne La Havas – it was a surprise that Delilah, the best of this crop, didn’t receive more attention. Jim Carroll


Highlight of the year in your areaIn February Andrew Litton elevated the RTÉ NSO to new heights in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, and Gábor Takács-Nagy made sparks with the Irish Chamber Orchestra. In marvellous Dublin conducting debuts, Tugan Sokhiev was all gorgeous sensuality with Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse, and Thomas Adès (above) a model of musical illumination with the Britten Sinfonia. Also memorable were veteran US composer Robert Ashley’s wittily wordy works at the Béal Festival, Finnish clarinettist Christoffer Sundqvist’s unfailingly seductive and showy account of Weber’s Clarinet Quintet with the Signum Quartet at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, and Seán Doran’s Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival. And suddenly we had a year rich in opera, from the RTÉ NSO’s concert performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s psychological drama Mozart and Salieri to Wide Open Opera’s triumphant Tristan und Isolde.

Highlights in other artsA very personal experience, a belated visit to the Bayeux Tapestry – 70m of endless wonder that, by a vagary of fate, I had nearly all to myself.

Biggest disappointmentIn 2009 the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra cut its regional touring activity in half. In April this year it dropped its only remaining tour. What is “national” about that?

Biggest surpriseThat the extremely short lead time of the Arts Council’s opera production awards for 2012 should have produced a result as rewarding as Wide Open Opera’s Tristan und Isolde. Also a number of job changes that few would have predicted: John Kelly’s departure as head of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Declan McGovern’s appointment as general manager of the RTÉ NSO, and Ger Lawlor’s nomination as the chairman of Wexford Festival Opera.

What will you be glad to see the back of?Rain on summer festivals.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .Challenging for as far as the imagination can reach.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedCork’s Grand Opera House’s performance of Cage’s Roaratorio kept everyone contained on part of the venue’s stage. It seemed a pity not to have had a bigger ambulatory space to allow greater numbers in. Michael Dervan


Highlights of the yearHaving read so many post-apocalyptic novels in recent years, John Kelly’s extraordinary history of the Famine, The Graves Are Walking, was a vivid and moving illustration of what Ireland was like when its apocalypse arrived. It is heavy on stats, yet never loses sight of the individual lives who comprised them. Elsewhere, seeing The Gloaming (right) play felt like a privilege. Martin Hayes alone is a genius, but adding Thomas Bartlett, Dennis Cahill, Iarla Ó Lionáird and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is just spoiling us, and their music takes pieces that are hundreds of years old and makes them sound like the future.

Biggest disappointmentHomeland. What a crock. Its crazy, ramped-up, twist-and-cliche-driven second season made the first look like a fluke rather than a plan. Thankfully, The Walking Dead proved a decent substitute. I don’t believe many shows have dealt with the traditional “boy has to shoot post-partum mum in head before she becomes zombie” storyline as well.

Biggest surpriseThe Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, about a boy and his magic dog, is pretty much the funniest, most inventive and most trippy show on TV. Along with the likes of The Amazing World of Gumball and Chowder, it’s further proof that the most influential animation of the past 20 years is not The Simpsons, but Ren and Stimpy.

What will you be glad to see the back of?The 1980s. It was terrible then. It’s not much better now.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .Sarah Greene. Alice in Funderland at the Abbey was fresh in the first half and tedious in the second, but Greene was brilliant throughout. I first saw her in Hilary Fannin’s version of Phaedra in 2011, and even in a secondary role she owned the stage.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedWhile Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds received all the plaudits, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain was a bolder, more satirical take on the Iraq War – as seen by a squad of Marines home on a publicity tour, and as explained to them by the civilians they meet. Shane Hegarty


Highlight of the year in your areaChannel Orange by Frank Ocean. A classic record with sonic and emotional depths so profound, they even overshadowed the artist’s coming out.

Highlights in other artsAlice In Funderland at the Abbey Theatre. No stage production this year had as big a heart as Alice.

Biggest disappointmentMadonna’s awful MDNA record and subsequent tour.

Biggest surpriseThe Weeknd aka Abel Tesfaye going supernova. House Of Balloons was one of my favourite albums of 2011, but who’d have thought the Canadian r’n’b minimalist would sell nearly 100,000 copies of his triptych of mixtapes, Trilogy, in the US in the first week of release, marking the beginning of the brostep backlash?

What will you be glad to see the back of?Gangnam Style, which sums up everything about how timewasting, stupid and, most of all, boring the majority of so-called “viral” material really is. Death of a meme.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .The seemingly neverending stream of new Irish acts kicking ass internationally as the homegrown music scene continues to bear strange and brilliant fruit. The stars of Little Green Cars, Kodaline, Hudson Taylor, Young Wonder, REID, Kool Thing, Rejjie Snow, Krystal Klear and MMOTHS will keep rising in 2013.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedThe hardly cerebral but brilliantly fun Snapbacks and Tattoos from Driicky Graham didn’t cross the Atlantic with any significant success. Una Mullally


Highlight of the year in your areaJosef Albers at the Glucksman Gallery, Cork (April to July). Ignoring the backstory about the artist’s religion, it was an amazing show. Alice Maher’s Becoming, currently at Imma (until Feb 2013). And Janet Cardiff’s Murder of Crows, at Kiasma, Helsinki, in March. Sound art can range from seriously awful to sublime. If this piece ever comes to Ireland, don’t miss it.

Highlights in other artsThe Dublin Fringe festival was brilliant: energetic, eclectic and fun. Especially WillFredd Theatre’s FARM, Caught from Fidget Feet, and Mirror Mirror by Ether Productions. And I’m still thinking about Painted Filly’s Bypass.

Biggest disappointmentI wish Imma would make more of being in the city centre with its Earlsfort Terrace venue. True, Alice Maher’s show is fantastic, but the place feels so unloved and half of the space is ignored. But the location right off St Stephen’s Green means it’s never going to be a better time to bring in new audiences.

Biggest surpriseThe Unthanks’ Songs from the Shipyards at the Pavilion in Dún Laoghaire in October. Grainy footage of Tyneside, with poignant lyrics and haunting melodies. Where do you start with how brilliant it was?

What will you be glad to see the back of?People mixing up price and value in the arts. An end to overexcited reporting of overheated auction results and markets would be wonderful.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .Smaller, less shiny and impressed with success, and all the brighter for it.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedOnce again, TV coverage of the arts. What there is, is buried in the insomniacs’ schedule. G’wan RTÉ and TV3, be brave. Art’s not going to bite that hard. Gemma Tipton


Highlight of the year in your areaHow’s this for a musical challenge: tackle Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in its entirety, with just a piano-bass-drums jazz set-up to work with. Oh, and any chance you could make it thrilling, original, and unmissable stuff that celebrates the work and uncovers something fresh in the composition? And tour it around Ireland, just to be safe.Take a bow, The Bad Plus (left), a formidably ambitious and accessible project.

Highlights in other areasLaurent Binet’s second World War sort-of-non-fiction novel HHhH was a triumph. The epic DruidMurphy cycle was a world-class piece of theatre-making. The Select (The Sun Also Rises) at the Dublin Theatre Festival brought Hemingway’s book to the stage in sublime fashion. Frank Ocean renegotiated every hip-hop cliche with Channel Orange. And Dr John’s Locked Down was a masterful distillation of musical heritage, funk and soul.

Biggest disappointmentLess a disappointment and more an utter disaster was the Phoenix Park concert that went so horribly awry, and became one of the worst news stories of the year. In film, both The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall delivered perplexing, preposterous plots that hobbled both films. It was a shame Fergal McCarthy’s Word River project at the Fringe fell foul of planning laws, and really disappointing that the Dublin Theatre Festival’s Public Face III couldn’t overcome its technical issues.

Biggest surpriseGoing along to a Fringe show being put on by a company of recent graduates in the basement of a bar with more than a little scepticism, and being rewarded with an immersive, theatrical experience that was as ambitious as it was inventive – take a bow Sugarglass Theatre and All Hell Lay Beneath.

What will you be glad to see the back of?It won’t happen, but it would be fantastic if organisations would stop insisting that the arts justify themselves in purely monetary terms. It is fine to demand quality and excellence even, but you can’t put a price on what the arts gives us as a society.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .Smaller is better. Small book publishers such as And Other Stories, Dalkey Archive Press and Salt Publishing had a stellar critical year, showing that you don’t need enormous marketing budgets and corporate might to win readers and succeed. And the Rubyworks music label celebrated 10 years in business this year, at a time when so many around it are shutting up shop. These are innovative, creative models that we should all take more notice of. And if their live shows are anything to go by, The Gloaming’s new album might well be the one that finally wins trad a new audience.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedWallis Bird released a very strong, eponymous album in March and followed it up with some superb live performances. Check her out live or on record if you haven’t already. Laurence Mackin


Highlight of the year in your areaThe Olympic opening ceremony: “lefty propaganda” from Danny Boyle that referenced centuries of British history and culture – Mary Poppins, Tim Berners Lee, William Blake, the NHS, suffragettes and coal miners – without being boring, imperial or overly sentimental. It celebrated free speech, pop culture and social democracy, and it knocked the cynicism out of me.

Highlights in other artsMarvel Avengers Assemble: Joss “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” Whedon used wit and craft to breathe new life into the superhero team-up without shirking on the wisecracking men and women in tights beating each other up.

Biggest disappointmentThe cancellation of David Milch’s lush, lyrical and complex racecourse drama Luck due to low ratings and too many horse deaths.

Biggest surpriseFinally watched a full series of The Good Wife and realised that it wasn’t just another legal procedural but a morally complex metanarrative about class, race, gender and power that also happens to be a legal procedural.

What will you be glad to see the back of?Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was an attempt to render a realistic, grim’n’gritty bat-themed vigilante. But it was camper than a thousand Adam Wests.

I’ve seen the future and it is . . .2D glasses! You can slip them over your 3D glasses to make films 2D again.

Something that should have been big but was cruelly overlookedSaga, Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s spatially operatic, imaginative graphic novel, deserves to be made into the sort of big-budget cinematic folly that bankrupts studios. Patrick Freyne

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