Tuesday 20 November 2018

There will be blood + bandage

'This isn't good old Cork chauvinism in action," insists Johnny Hanrahan. "It's not all about Cork!" Does the artistic director of the Meridian theatre protest too much?

What's he doing staging a new-writing theatre festival in Cork while the Dublin Fringe Festival is in full swing? And if it's not all about Cork, why has he called that theatre festival Blood + Bandage, when 'the blood and bandage' is the nickname for the Cork GAA strip?

He laughs. "Ah, that was just to come up with something catchy."

And he isn't trying to go head to head with the Dublin Fringe, he says. September, as the start of the season, seemed like a good time to try out a new festival and the local audiences have been responding well, irrespective of whether or not the national media may have a blinkered focus on Dublin for the duration of the Fringe.

This year's festival is a pilot. Recent years have seen the emergence of a strong tradition of new writing in Cork (with Enda Walsh trailblazing from Cork to New York, and Gina Moxley and Ursula Rani Sarma, amongst others, carving their own paths) and Johnny Hanrahan thought it was time to "formalise" that tradition; to create a forum where new work would be encouraged, and scrutinised.

Hence, Blood + Bandage. Three plays by three emerging writers though 'play' is perhaps too traditional a term.

"It isn't just about new scripts," says Hanrahan, "it's about new processes as well. The script-based model is vital, but it is overwhelming in the Irish context. The idea that all you do is new plays that have been developed by somebody in a room on their own [leads to] an impoverished aesthetic."

Last chance to see two of the productions is tonight. Beaten is by composer Ailís Ní Ríain; Hanrahan describes it as "a girl's lament for her childhood", in verse, performed by three actors in a kind of "vocal symphony". Thailand: What's Love Got To Do With It? is by Máirtín de Cógaín and Brian Desmond, and is "a savage satire" on both the sex trade, and attitudes to international issues generally. Tickets and information from the Granary, at 021-490 4275.

Opening on Monday is Kevin Barry's There Are Little Kingdoms. Barry's debut collection of short stories, published by The Stinging Fly, won last year's Rooney Prize. But instead of adapting one of the stories for the stage, Barry has adapted the whole collection.

"I took different stories and battered them off each other," he says. "There was no real model for adapting a whole collection of short stories. The only one was the movie Short Cuts, which was based on Raymond Carver's short stories.

"The only way to do it is on a geographical basis. The stories are all set in a generic, smallish town, and the town became the central character in the play. All these characters could be in any town; they're probably in your town." He insists he's not trying to write a 'state of the nation' piece, but the play has an 'after the goldrush' feel to it.

"There's almost no such thing as rural Ireland any more. You're never more than 20 miles from a 24-hour Tesco. The changes in the last few years have been probably more radical than any in the hundreds of years before. "I write comedies," he says, "but they're very dark, very bleak. It's how people get through, by laughing at their predicament. Laughter in the dark."

His influences aren't exactly in the theatrical tradition. "The Specials and the Jam are as important to me as Beckett. Fiction in Ireland tends to exist in a strange kind of vacuum, where it's only influenced by what has happened in Irish literature. It's as if popular cinema and music had never happened."

Screwball comedies of the 1950s and 1960s are a particular influence; theatre isn't. "The thing is, it's so often bad, and there's nothing worse than a bad play."

That will no doubt chime with Johnny Hanrahan, and his festival co-producer, Tony McCleane-Fay of the Granary. Though they're keen to foster new work in Cork, it's not just work that's about the city, or by its citizens: the key is to generate exciting, original work.

McCleane-Fay was in Dublin at the Fringe this week, trying to encourage young companies "to come and make work in Cork".

"It may be in response to the city, or they may just want to get out of Dublin and do something different," he says.

Hanrahan is aware that certain periods in certain places can generate theatre 'movements', and hopes this new festival might fuel that.

And if Cork responds particularly well to such new work, that may be simply because "the scale of a city like this is very conducive to proper communication with people," he says.

That's no Cork chauvinism, mind. That's just calling it as it is.

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