Sunday 20 October 2019

Galway Festival opens with pure poetry

  • Incantata, Town Hall Theatre, Galway
  • Furniture & Shelter, Mick Lally Theatre, Galway
Stanley Townsend is electrifying in 'Incantata'
Stanley Townsend is electrifying in 'Incantata'
The legendary Niall Buggy in 'Furniture'

Galway's International Arts Festival is off to a rip-roaring start, writes Emer O'Kelly.

'I thought of you tonight," says the Man conversationally. "You" is the artist Mary Farl Powers, who died in 1992. The "I" is her lover, poet Paul Muldoon, setting out the jumbled fragments of their life together.

He lays them out in a fearsome, numbing torrent. And, as each sharp pebble rushes through memory and consciousness, the jagged edges cut into agonised flesh anew, opening the scar tissue of loss to set it bleeding again.

Muldoon's great poem Incantata is a memoriam for Powers. As intense as it is masterful, its "rendering" for the stage as a one-man performance by Stanley Townsend makes it, fittingly, an all-encompassing installation. The actor manipulates and works through a video camera, in a great sound and visual "corpus", throwing his looming, tender, owl-like face into close-up, then stumbling and leaping into a huge mound of potatoes ready for carving into the cut images of art print.

The discarded dust sheets of the almost surreal studio setting even drape themselves like the lost love's shrouded figure in its "barrow". But heartbreakingly, it lacks the ink-stained fingers he remembers so well.

The performance is a monumental collaboration so perfect (glowingly directed by Sam Yates, designed by Rosanna Vize with Teho Teardo's music, Jack Phelan's video and lit by Paul Keogan with Sinead Diskin's sound), that the poem's kaleidoscopic images do more than freeze themselves individually into the mind. There is entry into the wounded heart that Townsend almost reluctantly offers before, it seems, becoming aware of his nakedness and crawling numbly to gather it back into the depths of a heart permanently pulsing against its wounds.

Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) seems to have a genius in its choice of co-production. In this case, it's Jen Coppinger and Poetry Ireland. And, of course, the electrifying Stanley Townsend.

Incantata is showing at the Town Hall Theatre.


A sense of humour is supposed to begin with the ability to laugh at yourself. Playwright Sonya Kelly began well: previous plays married heartbreak and near loss as high comedy. Now, having earned her stripes, she's tackling other relationships.

Furniture (a Druid production for GIAF at the Mick Lally Theatre) is three short plays.

The first features a seriously cool married couple (Peter Campion and Clare Monnelly) at an art exhibition which features the work of designer Eileen Gray. The husband is an unsuccessful artist, but at least he knows it's called "showing your work" not "putting your stuff in a gallery".

She's an ophthalmologist and "restores people's sight with my bare hands" even if she does set off the "no touch" beepers at prestigious exhibitions. Guess what? They embarrass each other, debating whether an Eileen Gray chair is a chair or a work of art - Kelly treats them with wickedly funny malice.

The second play introduces Stef and Dee (Aisling O'Sullivan and Rebecca O'Meara), with Dee moving her "stuff" into Stef's apartment of mid-century Danish perfection. Lust rules the roost, so they haven't bothered to find out much about each other, including the Danish chic, or Dee's scruffy smoking habits and a purple battered lounger circa 1982. You don't think falling asleep over a lit fag is funny? You're wrong.

Finally, in the third play Kelly allows herself to pull at our heartstrings with a dying "queen" (the legendary Niall Buggy) and his solicitor nephew (Garrett Lombard) as the latter tries to make the old man, a former "theatrical" face reality.

Central to this, is his much-prized (and naff) puce velvet chaise longue, which once graced the dressing room of Danny La Rue. It represents life itself to the old man, a more desirable life than his much-loved nephew's marriage to "a flat-footed, club-swinging Yeti". Except he doesn't mean it; and sometimes you have to expend all your love on dreams.

Directed impeccably by Cathal Cleary in a marvellously adaptable set by Francis O'Connor, the three are diamond bright.


Cristin Kehoe's Shelter plays in repertory with Furniture at GIAF. And, presumably, the intention was to provide contrast, but Kehoe's work is not nearly so sure-footed, seeming oversure of its own worthiness in tackling the problem of homelessness and its attendant urban woes of violence and ruptured relationships.

It also falls uneasily between realism and allegory, rather seriously lacking in credibility, as when a young woman is violently abused and deprived of her phone by the leader of a group of strangers, and doesn't turn a hair.

Set in a derelict mill in the Grand Canal Basin in Dublin, the security man (Rory Nolan) has opened the doors to Fus (Aaron Monaghan), obsessed with being the great grandson of a 1916 man who personally "did for" three British soldiers. Also homeless is 'Polish Tomas' (Mark Huberman), who dares Fus to take a dive into the canal from their refuge, which he does, thereby getting himself on the front pages, and alerting the owners/authorities what the building is used for. Also, there is Majella, (Lauren Larkin), Fus's pregnant girlfriend, and Bren (Brendan Conroy), an elderly obsessive terrified of conditions in hostels where he is routinely attacked.

Enter Angela (Rebecca Guinnane) a mere slip of a girl PA sent by the estate agent to deal with the situation, evict the squatters, and change the locks. And then there's the allegorical "flight" of Fus…

There's some truly excellent playing, particularly from Huberman, Larkin and Monaghan, but Oonagh Murphy's direction is awkwardly irritating, playing many of the characters with their backs (unnecessarily) to the audience, something she premiered unsuccessfully with Be Infants in Evil a couple of years ago.

Despite good intentions, Shelter comes across as awkwardly pretentious and condescending.

Sunday Independent

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