When the late Brendan Smith inaugurated the Dublin Theatre festival 55 years ago, funding for the arts in Ireland was almost non-existent. Since then we have gone through periods when our governments have complacently told us that "the funding's there now; get on with it."
But it was still abysmally inadequate for all art forms (save perhaps for what are called the traditional arts, and Irish language art). Even in perceived good times, we were well below the international bar in Europe for state arts funding.
In more recent years, indignation at funding reductions has frequently reduced a younger generation of artists to silence in all but grumbling about their entitlement to taxpayers' money. Undoubtedly, funding for the arts is a marker of the civilisation and status of the nation, and in Ireland we seem to want the reputation of being artistic without the financial commitment, or frequently, without even the commitment of the general public.
But despite funding inadequacies, the arts, including theatre, have always managed to survive over the years, right back to the time when visionaries like Smith took chances, frequently in the face of Church and State opposition.
Willie White, the current Artistic Director of the Dublin Theatre Festival, is showing some of that "show having to go on" spirit, with a remarkably impressive line-up for this year's festival, which is just getting under way. (Funding limitations, however, are visible in the number of solo shows on the programme, reflecting the year-round picture in Irish professional theatre.)
There are 12 international productions, including three from Australia, the highlight of the three being the already internationally celebrated Ganesh Versus the Third Reich from Back to Back theatre. It tells the story of the Hindu god Ganesh (lord of overcoming obstacles) attempting to re-appropriate the ancient symbol of the Swastika from Nazi Germany and melds into the story of a young man overcoming his own obstacles in story-telling. (It's in German and Sanskrit, with English surtitles.)
The other Australian offerings in what White calls a mini-season are Jack Charles V The Crown in which Charles, a veteran actor and Koori elder, but also a heroin addict and cat burglar, tells the story of his own life; the third is Hello my name is, an apparently comic one-woman show in which the audience become workshop participants in a community centre where they learn to have a conversation. I've seen that sort of thing many times: I have my doubts about its value, comic or otherwise.
For those who like their theatre cabaret-style, there's Adishatz/Adieu, from France, a one-man solo show in which Jonathan Capdevielle explores his teenage fantasies of various female pop idols. Well, sometimes self-indulgence can work. Not always, of course.
Where it probably will work is in What Happens to Hope at the End of the Evening, performed by long-time UK collaborators Tim Crouch and Andy Smith at the Peacock, as they explore life and friendship in the context of a wine-fuelled evening.
Book Burning, another one-man show, written and played by Pieter De Buysser, is a Belgian production, and tells the story of a man he met at an Occupy demonstration who was seeking the root of a genetic illness which killed his wife. It's billed as a testament to the magical power of a radical imagination. Let's hope so. And Perhaps All the Dragons, also from Belgium, is a digital installation of 30 synchronised monologues.
This year's home programming is massively impressive, with world premieres at the Abbey and the Gate. Mark O'Rowe's Our Few and Evil Days is at the Abbey, directed by the author, with a glittering cast of Sinead Cusack, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Charlie Murphy. The Gate has Hugo Hamilton's The Mariner, directed by Patrick Mason. It has a topical bent, telling the story of the 1916 return to Ireland of an injured sailor from the World War One Battle of Jutland.
Deirdre Kinahan's plays specialise in redemptive warmth, and her new piece Spinning, will be a Fishamble production at Smock Alley, directed by Jim Culleton, while the two risk-taking and always impressive companies Pan Pan and Corn Exchange return to the Festival with, respectively, Gavin Quinn's new take on Chekhov, The Seagull and Other Birds, and Annie Ryan's adaptation of Eimear McBride's award winning novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
And, of course, there's Druid's stunning double bill of Tom Murphy's Brigit and Bailegangaire (reviewed last week) while Anu Productions complete their Monto Cycle of Dublin life with Vardo, a site-specific work studying the underground lives of undocumented transient workers in our capital city.
And that is only a taste of the 11 Irish productions in the festival, without taking account of the Family Season in association with The Ark. It's the most impressive for several years, and, at a glance, looks like outshining the imports.
This is a one-day mini-festival that runs from 11.45 this morning till late tonight. It is worth getting there early to hear Stella Bass (vocals) and Hugh Buckley (guitar) in Molly’s Coffee Gallery. Stella is a fine singer with a relaxed stage presence, whose concert last June in the Sugar Club created a stir. She performs with the exuberantly swinging Hot House Big Band on Monday nights in the Mercantile. Don’t forget to buy a copy of her CD Too Darn Hot.
A group called Bobcat will play from 1.15 to 3 pm in the Laveer Restaurant, Bracken Court, while 3 DB are in The Harvest from 2 to 4 pm. Patrick Collins plays gypsy-style violin in the Central from 5 to 7 pm.
Finally, Hugh Buckley returns at 8.30 pm, this time to back the one and only Honor Heffernan in the Bracken Court Hotel. These two musical soulmates have been winning hearts and minds from Listowel back to Dun Laoghaire in recent months.
Those who are still at the Limerick Jazz Festival can enjoy the Crisis Point Big Band this afternoon at 2 pm in the Pegasus Room, Clarion Hotel. The band features Julian Siegel and Richie Buckley (saxes) with Keith McDonald and Conor J. Ryan (vocals). The supporting act is the Galway Youth Big Band.
Zrazy plays an outdoor gig this afternoon at Farmleigh House, Phoenix Park, from 2 to 4 pm. Children are welcome, and there’s a picnic area plus food on sale.
Looking ahead to next Sunday afternoon, the Louis Stewart Quartet is back in JJ Smyth’s for its monthly gig.