At the heart of the city

IN Exit Strategy, a new work created locally and performed in the Cork Arts Theatre for Cork Midsummer Festival, two semi-fictional characters riff on Cork’s cultural life.

At the heart of the city

Hungarian performer Eszter Nemethi declares that the city has a vibrant creative life, but her comment is dismissed by Cork-born performer Leah Hearne, who says the cultural scene is “parochial”.

But on the evidence of the 10-day festival which ended on Sunday, there is clearly a commitment among Cork-based artists to create imaginative work in the city, sometimes about the city.

100% Cork at the Opera House was unabashedly about the city and its natives. A hundred people, ranging from small children to a 77-year-old woman, represented a cross section of Cork’s population. Brief biographies were presented by each individual, but some were difficult to hear due to poor use of the microphone. The show was mainly about where people stood on everything from abortion legislation to intervention in Syria. There were some revealing statistics, such as the fact that 21% of the population were without heating at some point in 2011. But there was also fun to be had, with a few bars of ‘The Banks of the Lee’ making their appearance.

The festival had kicked off at 4am on Midsummer’s Eve with an outdoor dance and live art performance at the Lough, entitled Witches. Despite the ungodly hour, over 100 curious souls attended the opening performance. A celebration of female energy, Witches, choreographed by Ruairi Donovan, was enchanting and also a great excuse to see the dawn.

Witches was one of six shows in a programme entitled ‘We Live Here: New Work from Cork’. It included The Scarlet Letter from Conflicted Theatre, performed at Millennium Hall. This re-imagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century novel, in which a young woman is demonised for committing adultery, was impressive.

Raymond Scannell’s one-man show, DEEP, was very much about Cork. This paean to the former night club, Sir Henrys, is all about the electronic dance scene, using footage from the club and referencing events from the 1990s. Scannell is a talented writer but this show at the Half Moon, suffers from a lack of editing.

Music of a very different kind was the highlight of the tango opera, Maria de Buenos Aires, by Astor Piazzolla. Performed at the Cork Opera House, music director John O’Brien did a fine job with his band of musicians. Conceptually, the opera is challenging. As well as being about the fate of Maria, her story mirrors the rise, fall and ultimate resurrection of tango that evolved in the streets and brothels of Buenos Aires.

There was no artifice in Corcadorca’s work-shopped production of The Tallest Man in the World, by Cork-born playwright Ailis Ní Riain. Despite being best known as a composer, Ní Riain’s play has no sound score. Neither does it have a set. Performed at the Theatre Development Centre at the Triskel Arts Centre, this production is an intense excavation of the minds, demons and desires of three characters. There is no action in this play but at a psychological level, it is interesting, and Ní Riain’s writing is superb.

West Cork-based writer Carmel Winters’ latest play, Best Man, is well written and was staged with a stylish set, depicting a chic minimalist home in which Alan lives as a stay-at-home father who writes best man speeches and attempts to produce a novel. The play is set during the boom and ends in the bust.

Alan’s wife, Kay, an auctioneer, is obsessed with property. While there’s nothing ground-breaking about the gender role reversal here, what is unexpected is Kay’s affair with the lesbian nanny, Marta. Winters likes to take people by surprise. But this play is more of an entertainment than anything shocking. It’s about the power dynamic in a marriage — and as Kay (played by Derbhle Crotty) says, what’s at stake is “the architecture of betrayal”.

While there was much use of traditional theatre venues for this year’s festival, there were also some unusual locations. Farewell Cork took place in a disused building on Opera Lane. Featuring two performers from Montreal, they wondered what would the city be like if everyone stayed. Members of the audience gamely contributed their predictions standing at the open microphone. There was also singing and even slow-dancing. Briefly, total strangers connected with each other at this show, which was a bit touchy-feely and slightly goofballish.

Children got a look-in at the festival with Eat the Street. It was the best gig of the week. Various children from North Presentation National School got to dine out in a number of city centre restaurants. They acted as food critics and had an awards ceremony which saw Uncle Pete’s on Paul Street winning plaudits for ‘the best dessert in the world’ with its Oreo cheesecake.

While there is some truth in Leah Hearne’s remark that Cork tends to favour home-grown success stories that make it big elsewhere, on the evidence of this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival, there are plenty of talented cultural creators happy to stay put in Cork. Not everyone has an exit strategy.

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