AND...THAT'S a wrap! As the horses pound their way around Ballybrit to the full-throated cries of the watching multitudes, and the ladies don their fanciest frocks for the occasion, the Galway International Arts Festival strikes its big tent and packs away its even bigger selection box of arty treats for another year.
Looking back on the shows I attended, there were outstanding roles for, and performances by, Cathy Belton in Frank McGuinness’s The Match Box, Olwen Fouere in Beckett’s Lessness, and Amy Conroy in her own play, Luck Just Kissed You Hello. Belton was both moving and fearsome as the grieving, vengeful mother mourning a dead child; Fouere austere and compelling in her command of Beckett’s spare, wintry prose; and Conroy spiky, pained, and funny as a woman transitioning to a man. At a time when many plum roles still go to male actors, the festival can take satisfaction in programming work showcasing leading Irish actresses so impressively. The writing in Conroy’s play was admittedly somewhat uneven, though that is always an inherent risk when gambling on new work, even with well established authors, yet I would much prefer the festival to maintain a willingness to take that kind of risk rather than the safer option of ready-made, proven hits.
The Hofesh Schechter Company were one of the main attractions of week two and it did not disappoint with its pulsating dance production, DeGeneration. With a thunderously percussive score, snatches of recorded dialogue, and fiercely energetic choreography, the trio of dance pieces wowed the Black Box audience. The final piece in the programme, Disappearing Act, featuring the entire dance troupe, was particularly exhilarating, prompting a much merited standing ovation.
Brett Bailey’s theatre installation, Exhibit B, will linger long in the memory and was a definite stand-out from this year’s programme. This was an imaginatively conceived and powerfully realised exploration of the cruelty and evils of racism both in history and our own day.
Another highlight was The Dead School, staged by Galway Youth Theatre and Galway Community Theatre, and brilliantly adapted and directed by Andrew Flynn. With the merest shoestring resources, Flynn and his ensemble succeeded in giving a production of that could hold its own in every regard alongside the starrier festive offerings.
GYT/Galway Community Theatre also presented one of the best shows in last year’s programme, David Grieg’s Midsummer, and have been doing consistently strong work year in, year out, at the festival. Yet they remain cast as a ‘supporting act’ within the overall programme behind the A-list companies that comprise the festival flagship shows. This is understandable to some extent, insofar as the company is made up of young performers and non-professionals (though the Hofesh Schechter troupe also comprised apprentice dancers ) yet surely the excellence of the GYT/Community Theatre work merits more reward?
Take for example Moonfish’s adaptation of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea from the 2014 arts festival. That co-production with An Taibhdhearc proved the best of Galway’s local companies are well able to step up to the plate when given the resources to let them spread their wings (Star of the Sea returns in September for a national tour ).
Andrew Flynn, who has proven himself an outstanding director both with GYT and Decadent, would be a safe bet to deliver a top notch show given a more prominent festival slot. Flynn himself will admit Decadent's rise to prominence in recent years, culminating with their Irish premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, would not have been possible without the support and encouragement he got from Mike Diskin at the Town Hall who gave him main-stage shows and backing. Could the Galway International Arts Festival show similar investment in the brightest of local talent? Especially with the impending City of Culture bid. Food for thought while we look forward to 2016.