Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Many in the artistic community are concerned about borders' - Belfast International Arts Festival artistic director Richard Wakely

Artistic director Richard Wakely tells Hilary A White that Brexit can be very distracting for artists, especially when Britain's deadline for departure straddles this year's Belfast International Arts Festival

Diverse programming: Richard Wakely, artistic director of the Belfast International Arts Festival. Photo by Frank Mc Grath
Diverse programming: Richard Wakely, artistic director of the Belfast International Arts Festival. Photo by Frank Mc Grath
La Dame Blanche
Tokyo choreographer Hiroaki Umeda

Hilary A White

'There's a number of scenes replayed again and again," Richard Wakely says of Real Magic, a theatre piece coming up in this year's Belfast International Arts Festival. "Each time they change very slightly so it begins to play with assumptions and ask one or two existential questions in a hilarious way. We seem to be in this loop of events that we just can't break out of. The same things keep happening and we keep repeating the same mistakes."

The artistic director of the annual event is of course referencing Brexit, that inescapable bogeyman knocking at the door of a programme that will straddle the supposed October 31 deadline. All this in a region where a political vacuum persists. Interesting times for the festival that has sought to transcend small-mindedness and division since 1962.

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The 60-year-old could teach them a thing or two about diplomacy and acceptance. His journeyman days in London coincided with bomb blasts and suspicious glares when his accent was picked up on, but he was insulated by the "wonderful" theatre community he dwelled within. Wakely can at once bemoan a British lack of appreciation for the complexities of the North ("it's nothing new") while also insisting that as an Irish citizen, he remains eternally grateful for the patronage and support he received from British society while working and living there.

"There is a risk that Brexit is very distracting for artists," he says, "but we can't get away from it. People are looking for what it means. We don't take ourselves overly seriously or preach at the festival but we do reflect what the artistic community are doing and thinking, and a lot of them are concerned about borders, the environment and gender equality. And artists themselves are just a reflection of the wider community."

If you were to design a CEO for a Northern Irish cultural brand that would be internationalist in scope yet have a keen affinity for delicate matters on the ground, you couldn't do better than Wakely. Comprised, he tells me, of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish blood, via Nottingham, Dublin, Belfast and London, and married to an Indian Sikh (Dublin's Gate Theatre head of production Teerth Chungh), Wakely's make-up is now in the DNA of the festival itself.

"One of the ways we can contribute to the Peace Process," he says, "is through allowing other ideas and an appreciation of other cultures into our community. Maybe that way we can understand a little more about ourselves and the nature of 'the other'. There's always been an international element, but I've focused on the importance of the values of global connectivity but equally community because both link together in this one world we live in.

"We also believe in local government and local democracy. And we want the two governments to come together so that we can have that. It's very important the local decisions are made by people who live in Northern Ireland. And I'm speaking as an Irish national living in Dublin."

Serious stuff that perhaps doesn't indicate what fizzy company Wakely is this morning in a city centre café, chiming with the milk frother as he gasps happily about Greta Thunberg, Bruce Springsteen, or the seam of special Japanese programming running through this year's festival.

The latter, he remarks, is one of the hidden benefits of Belfast's complex political make-up, where it can sometimes get in on acts like Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019/20.

There's much more work to do, however. Northern Ireland, he reminds, has the lowest per capita spend for the arts on these islands. Although Wakely and his team were able to keep things upright after the festival's long-time association with Queen's University came to a halt in 2015 (due to finding cuts), he can only be cautiously optimistic about the future, what with austerity continuing and murmurs of the Arts Council there being ditched. Belfast City Council, who he feels at this stage are almost like a proxy government ("there is power-sharing on it and it works"), are doing their very best in difficult circumstances, but like all local authorities, are squeezed.

"There's very little appreciation or understanding for cultural tourism in the North. In the South, it's utterly different. That's a big challenge. Northern Ireland has been neglected in terms of big pan-national celebrations, whether it's on the island or as part of UK. Part of my remit is to make sure people understand that the 1.5 million people there really count, and they have every right to have these great works come to them as the good people in Edinburgh, Dublin, Manchester, London, Cardiff, wherever. My role is to make sure I fight for the rights of my people."

Belfast International Arts Festival runs October 15 to November 3. For full programme and to book, go to


Highlights: Five to watch at Belfast International Arts Festival

Median & Accumulated Layout - Hiroaki Umeda

The MAC, October 15 & 16

Tokyo choreographer Hiroaki Umeda

Part of Japan-UK Season of Culture, the Tokyo choreographer brings his sizzling amalgam of digital projection, science and stage craft to Belfast. Looks mesmerising.

La Dame Blanche

Belfast Empire Music Hall, October 18

La Dame Blanche

The acclaimed Cuban flautist (and daughter of Buena Vista Social Club linchpin Jesús 'Aguaje' Ramos) mixes reggae, hip-hop, cumbia and Latin jazz.

La Spire - Chloé Moglia

Botanic Gardens, October 19 & 20

In the lush environs of the Botanic Gardens, this all-female aerial acrobatics troupe trades in grace, grit and power with a keen awareness of space. Free of charge.

Real Magic - Forced Entertainment

The MAC, October 22 & 23

Beckett collides with reality television to create a world of absurd disconnection, struggle and comical repetition. What could be more fitting a week out from Brexit deadline day?

To Da Bone - (LA)HORDE

Grand Opera House, October 25 & 26

Taking a break from providing a stunning visual veneer to Christine and the Queens' stage show, the French dance troupe arrive in Ulster for a show exploring a youth subculture called 'Jumpstyle'.

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