Captive audience in Kilkenny

 

“PLEASE NOTE that you will be seated in a wheelchair, blindfolded and tied up as part of the performance.”

Who could resist an offer like that at two on a damp Friday afternoon? It sure beats Liveline. Day one of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and The Irish Timeswas first in the queue for some avant-garde Belgian theatre.

The show, called The Smile Off Your Face,was devised by Flemish theatrical troupe Ontroerend Goed, who claim to “create theatre that is equally challenging and treacherously shallow”. Its unique selling point is that each performance is limited to just one audience member at a time. And – a big bonus in these straitened times – admission is free (although booking is essential).

It is being staged in an appropriately spooky room in medieval Rothe House and the allegedly “once-in-lifetime” experience is like a cross between a Victorian freak show and a bondage session with Miss Whiplash. The 20-minute show involved being force fed wafer-thin chocolate, a sliver of tangerine and a marzipan pig; and getting “intimate” on a bed with “Sophie” and being asked to speculate on what she was wearing beneath “a red lace dress” while having your leg and hair stroked.

Tickets for the show, which runs until Tuesday night, are being snapped up fast.

But there’s a host of more conventional culture on offer throughout Kilkenny. The 10-day festival programme includes some 240 events with guests as diverse as the Innisfree Céilí Band and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, journalist Robert Fisk and a celebration of the films of Gabriel Byrne.

The streets yesterday teemed with visitors – both Irish and overseas. Outside Kyteler’s Inn a delighted Canadian read a plaque commemorating the site’s links to 13th-century witchcraft, and observed that he had just had lunch in a place “500 years older” than his country.

Jessica Alborghetti (20) from Grenoble, a first-time visitor, thought Ireland was “rainy and romantic and friendly” but even more expensive than the south of France.

The foreigners were dressed for the rain and sported smart umbrellas and sleek raincoats. The Irish looked surprised by the weather and squelched about in sandals and cropped pants.

Beyond the confines of a vast official programme there is a flourishing fringe festival – mainly consisting of young visual artists – which, in classic Irish fashion, seems to have already split into “Official” and “Provisional” wings.

There’s no end of choice – from the Hopper-esque streetscapes of Eoghain Phelan (at Ryan’s Electrical Shop on the High Street) to oil paintings of tractors, hurlers, and dairy cows by Marley Irish (at the Hibernian Hotel).

Ironically, as thousands of visitors descend on Kilkenny many locals are planning to flee to Dublin for performance art of a different kind.

The county’s senior hurling team meets Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park on Sunday afternoon. Not wild horses – let alone an arts festival – would halt the flow.