For some years now, one of the Belfast Festival's attractions has been that it includes a number of characteristically "fringey" events; this year, however, sees the birth of an official Belfast Festival Fringe. Almost inevitably, it is bigger than its elder sister, even if in some cases it serves merely as a convenient umbrella: country superstar Garth Brooks's five sell-out nights in the province's biggest concert venue – a Fringe event? Some of the fare on offer is appealingly cheeky. The Ridiculusmus company's The Exhibitionists, for example (which I saw in August in a conventional Edinburgh Fringe theatre), is an appealingly bonkers hour spent in the company of two art gallery guards desperately trying to keep themselves amused; its Belfast revival takes place in the perfect setting of an exhibition by Yoko Ono.
The official Festival, however, retains its element of small-scale, recherché works, usually in the Old Museum Arts Centre. That venue hosted Andrew Dawson and Jos Houben's Quatre Mains prior to its Christmas stint at the Lyric Hammersmith. I adored this piece on first viewing in January, and I adore it still: a table-top mime presentation in which the action is performed by the practitioners' hands alone. Some sequences are abstract, some representative – I think I spotted a miniature film noir, a 1950s giant-insect movie and an entire global evolutionary process in there somewhere. Quatre Mains is not quite dance (as it has been reviewed elsewhere), nor is it suite theatre; it is, though, quite delightful. So, in its grim way, is the Gare St Lazare Players' stage adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, heretofore feted on the 1997 Edinburgh Fringe. Conor Lovett's delivery is out of the Beckettian theatrical mainstream, being diffident, dismissive and distracted – reminiscent, in fact, of comedian Ardal O'Hanlon in more reflective mood. Lovett gets up from the audience, murmurs apologetically for an hour, stops and walks off... but for that hour he is undemonstratively engaging, even charming.
Prior to the Belfast visit of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass's digital opera Monsters of Grace, the Festival devoted last weekend to the unfathomable Mr Wilson. Bob, performed by Will Bond in a rather more madcap characterisation than strict impersonation might permit, was an assemblage of remarks culled from three decades of interviews with, and features on, the director himself: "I draw pictures – I don't draw meanings," remarks Bond's Wilson. Many of the most interesting extracts undiplomatically anticipated Wilson's own lecture on Sunday evening, speaking of everything from his work with deaf and autistic collaborators to the "flatness" of Ralph Fiennes's Hamlet to his own collection of over 2000 chairs. Like the judge in the old joke, after three hours we may have been none the wiser but we were much better informed.
The domestic theatrical highlight of the Festival is a revival of Stewart Parker's Northern Star, jointly produced by the Field Day and Tinderbox companies and directed by Stephen Rea. Parker's play, which focuses on the role of Belfast dissenter Henry Joy McCracken (Conleth Hill) in the United Irishmen's uprising of 1798, gains in power by being staged in that rising's bicentennial year and in that same First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street where McCracken and several of his fellows worshipped. Most major scenes are written in parodies of Anglo-Irish playwrights from Farquhar through Wilde to Beckett, but this is more than a stylistic tour de force. Throughout the play it is clear that the passionate striving of McCracken to find a clear path between the opposing religio-political camps in Ireland is shared by Parker to the very marrow. Along with the rest of my countrymen, I mourned Parker's premature death ten years ago, but only now have I come truly to realise what an immense talent of pen, of head and of heart was lost with him.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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