While success at Edinburgh carries an obvious boon for the Irish artistic community as a whole, such triumph also impacts indirectly on other areas of the nation, writes John Daly.
This is shaping up as another good year for Irish artists at the Edinburgh Festival, with two plays having already garnered important prizes.
Druid Theatre Company’s acclaimed production of Waiting For Godot has won a prestigious Herald Angel award, while Iseult Golden and David Horan’s play, Class, produced by Abbey Theatre, has won a Fringe First for outstanding new writing.
“I don’t think we’ve ever come away from Edinburgh without a number of awards, and thankfully this year is no different,” says Christine Sisk, director of Culture Ireland.
“The toughest thing in Edinburgh is getting the critics in, because there are so many shows on offer. But when a show receives four or five stars from the critics, followed by high-profile awards, that really elevates their status and sets them apart.”
Culture Ireland’s showcase programme creates and supports opportunities for Irish artists and companies to present and promote their work at strategic international and national arts markets, art form festivals and trade fairs.
The programme is particularly focused on building awareness of new and emerging Irish artists and enhancing Ireland’s reputation abroad as a leader in creative and cultural practice through partnerships with strategic festivals and promoters.
“When we’re taking work abroad, we always look for it to be presented first in Ireland, not just to be sure of the quality we are sending away, but also for it to have become so honed that it is like an athlete ready for the greatest stage at the Olympics.”
In addition to Druid, Landmark Productions and Ballet Ireland are among the many Irish companies in Edinburgh this year, where audiences at the Fringe and International Book Festivals can immerse themselves in over 150 performances of Irish theatre, ballet and contemporary dance and appearances by Irish writers.
“This year’s delegation of Irish work, the largest ever, is a key part of Culture Ireland GB18, a yearlong initiative promoting Irish arts in Britain.”
Since 2005, Culture Ireland has presented the works of more than 80 Irish companies and 120 Irish writers at the key cultural marketplace of Edinburgh Festivals, resulting in several Irish touring their work overseas.
Highlights of the past few years include Fishamble touring both the Olivier-award-winning Silent and Fringe First-winning Underneath around the world; Corn Exchange’s production A Girl is a Half-formed Thing being invited to London and New York; and Dublin Oldschool by Emmet Kirwan invited to London’s National Theatre, followed by a movie version of the play.
While success at Edinburgh carries an obvious boon for the Irish artistic community as a whole, such triumph also impacts indirectly on other areas of the nation.
“People see these shows in places like Edinburgh, and then want to come and see more by visiting the place they came from,” Christine explains.
“From a business point of view, we often work with the IDA in presenting the artists because they see it as another way of showcasing Ireland as a high-tech country through the inventive theatrical innovations on display.
With concerns around Brexit as prevalent amongst the artistic community as it is in the business sector, GB18: Promoting Irish Arts in Britain, seems a timely initiative to counter any possible future turbulence.
During the year, significant numbers of Irish artists, performers and creators will continue to present their work at venues and festivals across England, Scotland and Wales.
“We looked at where Culture Ireland was supporting artists, and the numbers going to Britain in theatre and music and literature were much reduced compared to 10 years ago.
"Artists were going further afield, to the US and Australia. But England is an important market for Irish theatre and literature especially, and has so much to offer artists.”
With a budget of €1m, GB18 offers greater value for money in expositions of our nearest neighbour: “Simply put, the funding goes much further due to the UK’s geographical proximity. To bring the same work to the US would cost anything up to €5m.”
A parent-teacher meeting turns into a territorial war of attrition in Class, the Festival Fringe winner written by Iseult Golden and David Horan.
Directed by the playwrights, one reviewer described this three-hander as a “tremendously acted” series of fast-cut scenes where there “are no answers, but many provocative questions”.
Seeing the work recognised is amongst the most satisfying rewards of the win at Edinburgh. “Above everything, it’s just great to see the work be recognised,” says David.
“We think Class is an important play and this award helps make that case. Hopefully, it will result in being seen by even more people as it receives invitations to play throughout the rest of Britain and in America and Australia on the back of this win.”
Designed to encourage performers to bring new work to Edinburgh in the spirit of adventure and experiment, the Fringe First Awards are presented weekly throughout the Fringe.
“The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is a shop window for international theatre, and the ultimate test of a show’s connection to a wider audience,” Iseult believes. “It not only opens up touring possibilities, the future life of the show and opportunities for the makers, it also let’s us know if the conversation we are having is one that the rest of the world is interested in. Happily, in this case, they are.”
Representing Ireland, and the associated benefits the play’s success will bring in potential areas like tourism, are extra merits to be enjoyed.
“We are very aware that this is a new Irish play that comes from our particular culture and tells some of our story,” David says.
“And yes, we feel pretty proud to be representing Ireland with a piece that people are bonding with so strongly. It’s a great feeling to be a part of something that reflects well on our fabulous little Island, even if we are critical of it ourselves, here and there.”
Brexit has been a recurring topic of conversation at Edinburgh this year, and the potential difficulties it could present for the artistic community.
“On a practical level, absolutely Brexit is a problem, and we wonder how much more difficult taking a play to Edinburgh will be next year as the labour laws change,” says Iseult.
As to their own preferences for must-see shows at the festival, Iseult and David name check What Girls Are Made Of, Ulster American, Everything Not Saved, My Left Nut and Maz & Bricks.
“They are all — like Class — being supported by Culture Ireland who play a vital role in promoting Irish art abroad.”