THE PROGRAMME for this year’s Galway Theatre Festival, which runs from May 4 to 12, was revealed on Monday evening at a thronged launch in Biteclub on Abbeygate Street. Once again festival director Máiréad Ní Chróinín and her team have assembled a top-notch line-up of shows and ancillary events, guaranteed to entertain, surprise, delight and inspire.
This year marks the festival’s 10th birthday and, talking with me about the programme, Máiréad Ní Chróinín began by reflecting on its development over the past decade.
“Galway Theatre Festival has established itself and become a vital part of the arts scene in Galway and is on its way to being a vital part of the arts scene in Ireland," she tells me. "We’ve started compiling an archive and in coming across memorabilia of early years it is nice to be reminded of where the festival came from. It had a really nice aspirational vision that emerged from discussions with local theatre groups about there being a need to provide a platform for work, and that it would become a festival that would take place in many venues and comprise many different forms of theatre. Over its 10 years GTF has reached and surpassed those aspirations and become something very special.”
In her introduction to this year’s programme, Ní Chróinín remarks: “The 10th Galway Theatre Festival asks us to think physically and metaphorically about our heart. What effect does living in this sped-up world, where being constantly ‘busy’ is the new normal, have on our health and well-being?...The shows in this year’s festival remind us to think about what it is that nourishes our heart, and feeds our sense of health and wellbeing.”
Ní Chróinín expands on this thematic strand. “We don’t set a theme in advance of the festival but as we go through the selection process we see themes emerging from the shows," she says. "This year I saw a really interesting theme around mental health and awareness and around issues and ideas in society that people find shaping their lives in uncomfortable ways. Nth Degree’s The Words Are There explores domestic abuse; One Of The Lads, from Rabbits Riot Theatre Co, is about toxic masculinity; Floating World’s Lunatic, There I Go, dramatises Hannah Greally’s memoir Bird’s Nest Soup about her stay in Mullingar mental hospital.
"There is also some really interesting work on people’s personal experiences of illnesses that might be less explored or less articulated. Glutened by Caitríona Ní Chonaola is a light-hearted but very honest look at coeliacs disease. Similarly, Invisible explores Conor Geoghegan’s personal experience of being diagnosed with MS when he was 15, and living with that sense of it being invisible to him yet that it might manifest later on, and how that impacts his mental health and approach to life.
“I’d also been thinking about the sustainability of artists’ careers which comes up a lot in forum discussions,” Ní Chróinín [pictured below] continues, referring to the How is Your Heart? panel discussion on wellbeing and theatre. “Being self-employed, artists often take on an awful lot because they don’t always know what a project will lead to. I read a blog about ‘busyness’ and what gets forgotten about as we rush around more and that idea was running through my head as well.
"A theatre festival can be an occasion to reflect on what is of value to us and what we would like to spend more time nourishing in our lives. Theatre shows give us a chance to sit and be present in the moment, and go with someone you love or haven’t seen in a while and take time to chat with them afterwards or have a meal with them beforehand; that is all part of the experience.”
A number of shows address issues of ‘hot off the presses’ topicality. Sarah Hoover’s Two Truths queries where Ireland might be heading politically in the next 10 years, while Brokentalkers’ Unexploded Ordinances also ponders the modern political landscape. Guna Nua’s The Morning After The Life Before reflects on the Marriage Equality Referendum, and Fishamble’s Maz and Bricks wins ‘the topicality Oscar’ by being set against the backdrop of a ‘Repeal the 8th’ demonstration.
'It’s wonderful that people are drawing on specifically Galway stories,” Ní Chróinín declares. “The festival not only responds to the needs of artists but also to the Galway community'
“It’s interesting how many of the shows are ‘on topic’ and are very much trying to open people’s minds but also to different experiences, and that is a great part of the festival that it brings people together in a dialogue between audience and what’s going on on stage. It’s live and can be talked about afterwards,” Ní Chróinín observes. “You mightn’t think you like theatre, but there might be some issue that you are interested in that hasn’t been presented in a theatrical way like politics or the idea of fake news, or how we make sense of what politicians say. All those elements are interesting to see being reflected through theatre which can be entertaining and involving and make for a good night out, as well as being thought provoking and stay with people.”
Contrasting with shows that dramatises present day issues, the mythic Irish hero Cuchullain features in two productions, The Only Jealousy Of Emer, from Dance Players, and Candlelit Tales’ Epic Of Cuchullain.
“One of the other fantastic aspects of the festival is theatre artists exploring ways of telling stories,” Ní Chróinín notes. “The stories of Cuchullain are so epic and compelling. Candlelit Tales have been at GTF a few times with their storytelling approach to epic legends and each time they are sell out shows, mainly from word of mouth from people just going and being blown away. They are a guaranteed great night out. The other Cuchullain story, The Last Jealousy Of Emer, is fascinating and reinterprets the play by WB Yeats by a Hungarian director and she is really lifting out the songs and the music and the spectacle and dance and visual elements. I think that will be really wonderful, it’s also an unusual retelling of the story in that it focuses on three women in Cuchullain’s life and their take on his final days.”
There will be keen interest in the many shows by local theatre makers, especially those that tell Galway stories; Brú Theatre’s Cleite/Feather, about Claddagh fisherwomen, and Elaine Mears’ Una about the life of Una Taaffe [pictured above]. “It’s wonderful that people are drawing on specifically Galway stories,” Ní Chróinín declares. “The festival not only responds to the needs of artists but also to the Galway community being served by local artists who can tell these local stories in a way that are truthful and respectful of the community where they are coming from.
"Both Elaine and Bru’s shows really demonstrate that. Elaine’s staging is work in progress that will hopefully get a full staging next year and it has already generated an incredible sense of interest. The other thing is that these stories start as local Galway stories but they resonate much more widely and express universal ideas around communities and the role of particular people within those communities.”
The Galway Theatre Festival is chock a block with good things to see and enjoy. Full details are available from galwaytheatrefestival.com