Thursday 17 August 2017

Theatre festival taking root in a shifting landscape out West

Chair of the boards: Jérémie Cyer-Cooke, a French-Canadian living in Galway, will perform the one-man Blood on the Moon at the Galway Theatre Festival
Chair of the boards: Jérémie Cyer-Cooke, a French-Canadian living in Galway, will perform the one-man Blood on the Moon at the Galway Theatre Festival
Emma O'Grady

Chris McCormack

In Galway, a city revered for its theatre, it has long been asked how to professionalise the hard-working independent sector? Druid's brand of rigorous dramatic theatre and Macnas's epic street spectacles have long been installed (and regularly funded) as mainstays. The only other niche carved out has been by Branar, a leading theatre company for young audiences. But we've yet to see if another local company can routinely become part of the annual arts festival (which added the 'International' to its name in 2014). In a city never short on vision, the infrastructure hasn't made room for a new one.

Galway Theatre Festival probably stands a better chance than most to answer the question. It began nine years ago but was refreshed in 2015 by a schedule change, which saw it move from the end of the festival season to the very beginning. Festival manager Máiréad Ní Chróinín has wisely gotten the local theatre establishment on-board. Work-in-progress showcases of new work through Druid's FUEL artists' residency scheme and Macnas's Young Ensemble have featured in recent years. Add enthusiastic graduates of the city's burgeoning university to the mix and the possibilities seem limitless.

The festival has also become a beacon for more experienced players. Actor Tara Breathnach, recognisable from her work with with Focus Theatre and the TV documentary The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, takes on two female icons this year: her play Molly is a new adaptation of the Molly Bloom chapter of Ulysses, and an in-development showing of a new work is based on Siobhán McKenna's legendary turn in Bernard Shaw's St Joan. Elsewhere, a frustrating artistic infrastructure (locals tease Galway as 'the graveyard of ambition') is tackled by a trio of long-time clowns and musicians in The Return of the Mackerel Eators.

For something atmospheric and alternative, Emer McMahon's spoken-word play about unexpressed desire, How to Stop the Sea, could be your ticket. If the elegantly estranging effects of contemporary theatre are your preference, check out Tea, a performance drawing parallels between Eastern and Western tea ceremonies, created by John Rogers and Aengus Hackett. For a look at the next generation, Thereisbear! Theatre Company presents a reimagining of vampire novella Carmilla by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu that changes setting from Austria to 1880s Connemara - might be of interest.

Another homecoming is to be found in Brick Wall Theatre's production of Blood on the Moon, a 1999 play by Canadian writer Pierre Brault, about a Galway-born emigrant in 1860s Ottawa. "The Irish are one of our founding people," says its performer, Jérémie Cyer-Cooke, a French-Canadian living in Galway. "I don't think most people realise how Ireland played a big role in the making of Canada".

In 1868, James Patrick Whelan was accused of murdering a famous politician (a fellow Irish emigrant) and sentenced to death. In Broult's play, his ghost returns to prove his innocence. Written for one actor, with 18 characters, Cyer-Cooke has had to rely on the transformations of physical theatre. "I use different voices but my range can only go so far," he says. "Postures are very important."

Influenced by the French theorist Jacques Lecoq, Cyer-Cooke speaks excitably about the possibilities of the body in performance.

"To be able to use words with movement creates an entire new world. How I can create with my body a three-dimensional world for the audience, with nothing else but a chair."

The closest thing to a festival headliner is Emma O'Grady's play What Good is Looking Well When You're Rotten on the Inside? O'Grady is a long-time theatre worker in Galway with Macnas, or her company Mephisto, which folded in 2014. "I'm proud of everything Mephisto did," she says. "But this feels like it's different."

She describes it as "a mix-tape" of her grandfather who died when she was 12, and left behind a collection of self-recordings on cassettes. "We were all there when he was recording them," she says. "He asked for a tape recorder when his eyesight was going. He'd go into a room on his own and stop the tape if anyone walked in. People kind of rolled their eyes."

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Emma O'Grady

In 2010, O'Grady (pictured) brought the tapes to Galway with the intention of digitising them to CDs for her family. "I started listening and realised they weren't meant for the family," she says. "They're not his personal memories. It's like a Radio One audience he's telling stories to. I thought this has to be brought to an audience.

"There's a saying that you die twice. You die once when you breathe your last breath, you die again when someone says your name for the last time. His story isn't over yet."

New perspectives are to be found throughout this programme. As the city poises itself to become the 2020 European Capital of Culture - with all the investment that will bring - Galway Theatre Festival seems to be taking root in a shifting landscape.

Galway Theatre Festival starts on Tuesday and runs until April 23

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