Despite the downpours, the 35th Kilkenny Arts Festival presented a theatre programme that, with a slight exception, hit the heights, with four plays by the recently acclaimed Belarus Free Theatre – a first for Ireland – whose chilling style caught such a timely mood as in Europe, Georgia opened and closed a war against the awesome might of Russia. Truth is one of the casualties of war and this company exposed the awful reality of truth or lies as just a version of freedom fighters or oppressors. Belarus Free Theatre are banned from performing these plays in their own country – a repressive regime in a former Soviet state and thanks to the support of Tom Stoppard, Mick Jagger, Harold Pinter and Vaclav Havel, their voice has been heard in Britain and this year in Greece. But this is no agit-prop theatre or this season’s conscience-pricker for the chattering classes like London has its Russian theatre Teatr Licedei at Hackney Empire and Kilkenny had Belarus Free Theatre this year.
Tom Creed was curator of the theatre programme and it is ironic that he directed Mimic, a one-man show written, composed and performed by Raymond Scannell, that was the low point of the theatre programme.
For eighty minutes Scannell sat at a piano and meandered on about what the programme called – an experiment – and was mediocre at best as he babbled at times about a list of chattering class topics and a few average impressions of Morrissey, Colombo, James Stewart, Christy Brown and the Celtic Tiger. In its favour the younger members of the audience gave it a standing ovation.
In The Parade Tower, Conor Lovett showed why Gare St. Lazare Players are foremost interpreters of the bleak work of Samuel Beckett. The End is a long shortstory published in French in 1947 in the Sartre founded Les Temps Modernes. Simone de Beavoir thought the piece lowered the artistic tone of the journal with its too many references to itching genitals and description of bodily functions.
While I still think Lovett is too young to theatrically realise the awful characters he represents, this was fine, work with its repetition of that Beckett phrase – to go on. Towards the end of The End, Lovett dragged down a red plush backing cloth that seemed accidental and showy but he coped so well. I hope Garter Lane will present this work soon.
As part of the theatre programme the comedy actress, Priscilla Robinson, in her one-woman show, presented KuddelMuddel in the Oxfam Shop. The show involved the wine and ice-cakes like a pre-show reception and she hit the audiences funny-bone with a series of slides about her muddled life and ended with an auction of left-over items from her wardrobe. It was so hot at the show that my glasses kept steaming up.
The Belarus Free Theatre, at the Watergate Theatre, opened with GenerationJeans, written, directed and performed by group leader, Nikolai Khalezin. The monologue was unusual for agit-prop in that it delighted in black market blue jeans and rock and roll bootleg records. It brought home the freedoms we enjoy as against Belarus where choice of clothes is a political statement. In Russia with surtitles, you easily settled into a piece of theatre that made you more and more uneasy as the harsh repressive regime tortured and harassed dissidents and actors. At times this was a real story, not a play or representation. The use of the Jan Palach story (he burned himself in Prague about forty years ago in protest) seemed too much a theatrical device but this was powerful stuff. On the drive home I kept thinking of Bobby Sands and how Irish theatre dealt with such things and on the radio I heard reports of peace-making in Georgia and Belarus female shot-putters.
Being Harold Pinter
Using extracts from Pinter’s plays and Nobel prize speech interlaced with Belarus stories about torture and terror, the actors of Belarus Free Theatre impressed and I felt uncomfortable as characters denied that their past was not their business. But you could not deny the human impact of this uncomfortable, searing, visceral theatre, where a la Stanislavski truth and lies are just dialogue or a theatrical device to make people think the almost unthinkable. The torture, brutality and mind games was chilling especially a scene where people were trapped in a huge plastic sheet. The ritual use of chant and religious imagery made the work all the more shocking.
Leaving the theatre, a group of women stood in the downpour protesting outside Whispers, the Poledancing club. I think I retreated into my shell, turned up the road and drove home trying to avoid the flooding and uncomfortable thoughts.
An item about a protest at the Tuam Arts Festival, where an artist had to remove from the exhibition a photo featuring a red handbag in front of a UFF mural in Belfast came to mind and perhaps the arts can still change peoples’ minds but . . .
The journalist Fintan O’Toole gave a very informative talk on the life of James O’Neill, the actor/manager father of playwright Eugene O’Neill. Too often at festivals you are bombarded with information and stimulation and at times you needed a bit more pre-knowledge to actually benefit from the event. O’Toole did his beat to give potted versions of O’Neill’s plays but the connection to Kilkenny was too tenuous. James O’Neill was born in Co. Kilkenny and emigrated to America after the famine and found troubled fame turning The Count Of Monte Christo for over thirty years.
\The musical highlight of the Festival was the concert by wrld-famous classical guitarist, John Williams, at St. Canice’s Cathedral. He spoke to his audience and excelled in a first half that was wonderful and a trip down memory lane featuring a Vivaldi concerto from his Sixties and Nineties back list. Three Scarlatti sonatas from the Seventies led int0p three Albeniz pieces from the Eighties recordings. This was unshowy virtuoso playing, especially the beautiful Asturias.
In the second half we got the composer Mangore, the Paraguay guitarist that Williams reckons is the greatest guitar composer. His La Catedral suited the venue. We also got four of Williams own compositions and an impressive Djilile from Tasmanian composer, Peter Schulthorpe with its own dissonances and repeating motifs. The finale with Koyunbaba by Italian composer Domeniconi was a wonderful modern example of Turkish 4 chord tuning and an encore of the Planxty hit Si Beag Si Mor hit the pleasure spot.
At Grennan Mills I saw an amazing exhibition of ecclesiastic embroidery and thread stitching on robes and uniforms that deserves a Waterford showing sometime.
During the Festival, the staff at The Watergate Theatre were excellent and very helpful and they have a clever way of marketing their upcoming in-house4 production of J. B. Keane’s Moll from 24 to 30 August, using holy pictures as a touch of nostalgia and class.