Sanctuary in Galway for theatre festival

Production companies go west for this week’s schedule of performances, says Pádraic Killeen

Sanctuary in Galway for theatre festival

THE Galway Theatre Festival kicks off a week-long programme today.

Now in its fifth year, the event’s growing prominence is evidence of a theatre resurgence in the city. Galway is home to a number of admired young companies, among them Fregoli, Mephisto, WaterDonkey, and Fíbín, and this year’s Festival programme – overseen by director Róisín Stack – has consolidated the progress made in recent years.

As was the case last year, a couple of the shows arrive fresh from Dublin’s Absolut Fringe. These are Tromluí Phinocchio / Pinocchio – A Nightmare by local outfit Moonfish, and Death of a Salesman by Talking Shop Ensemble and Shaun Dunne. (The latter picked up one of the big prizes at the Fringe). There is also Home, the new production from Fregoli, a series of Beckett short pieces staged by Mouth on Fire, as well as a new production by one of Galway’s most ambitious companies, Mephisto.

Mephisto are reviving Rita Ann Higgins’ 1991 play Face Licker Come Home.

“It’s a very haunting story,” says Caroline Lynch, the play’s co-director.

“It’s about a woman who basically lives in her bathroom and is waiting for her husband – the face licker – to come home. And he never does come home. She’s been abandoned. She’s a very intriguing character. She’s retreated into this bathroom and she makes sense of her world in a very bizarre way. It’s a puzzling piece to work on and it’s very funny. It’s got that wicked sense of humour that Rita Ann puts into a lot of her stuff. Yet even though it’s madcap and bizarre, it’s also grounded. You get the sense that this woman could be living in any of the houses you walk past every day.”

Higgins – a celebrated poet and a Galway native – has written an additional scene for the new production. “It’s an extra piece of monologue for the husband,” reveals Lynch. “It kind of explains his absence and it casts Ellen’s despair in an even sadder light.”

Mephisto have produced a show at every Galway Theatre Festival to date. Lynch says the event has become a vital outlet for the city’s companies. “There is a lot of theatre here over the summer and then it goes quiet for the winter,” she says. “But the festival motivates you to get one more show on. It gives you something to aim for and it keeps you in contact with the other companies making theatre here as well.”

One of those other companies is Blue Teapot, which this year makes its festival debut with the premiere of Christian O’Reilly’s new play Sanctuary. Set up in 1996, initially as a community-based project, Blue Teapot is a company specifically focused on involving people with intellectual disabilities. It has its own ensemble of actors, its own theatre, and in recent years has also set up its own performing arts school, by means of which actors with intellectual disabilities can avail of a FETAC accredited training course. Its long-term aim is to establish itself as the National Theatre for people with intellectual disabilities.

Blue Teapot’s director, Petal Pilley, grew up as part of the travelling theatre company Footsbarn and her first experience of Galway theatre was as a child in the late 1970s.

“Galway audiences are very loyal, but also very discerning,” says Pilley. “They really support theatre and that’s why so many companies exist here. There are a lot of grassroots companies, whether it’s people coming out of NUIG or others that have come up through Galway Youth Theatre. The festival is in its early formative years but it’s wonderful that it’s supporting local theatre in this way.”

Blue Teapot’s new production, Sanctuary, deals with the sensitive issue of romantic and sexual intimacy between people with intellectual disabilities. Pilley commissioned award-winning playwright O’Reilly to write the piece

“Because our actors are such a specific group to write for, I invited Christian in to interview and chat with them,” she says. “We spent three or four days improvising so that he could get to know everyone as actors but also as people because, obviously, he was writing a play for them, and on a subject that would touch their own lives.”

Pilley says the play’s subject matter is not a neat one with easy answers: “Just because it’s not easy to tackle doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be discussion around it,” she says. “For people with intellectual disability it is such a restrictive part of their lives.”

* The Galway Theatre Festival runs Oct 1–7.

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