looks back at his highlights of the year.
I had the good fortune to be in London during the run of A Very Expensive Poison, by Lucy Prebble. So much theatrical intelligence on display, and so much fun, yet never in a way that betrayed the seriousness of the subject matter, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the British government’s shameless abdication of duty.
Marty Rea and Eileen Walsh were excellent in David Eldridge’s Beginning at the Gate. Yes, another British playwright. This time with a tense, 90-minute real-time tale of fraught 21st-century coupling.
Beckett’s Room, also at the Gate, showed Dead Centre continuing to bring intellectual heft and playfulness to the Irish scene. Quaintly daft, or daftly quaint, to begin with, the piece grew into an evocative reimaging of the context out of which Samuel Beckett’s absurdist aesthetic grew.
While the lineup for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival this year was worryingly threadbare, it did manage to serve up two concerts among the very best. John Surman and Vigleik Storaas joined in an expansive evening of Nordic jazz, while Fred Hersch’s performance with his trio, with its mix of standards and originals, somehow grew, at least for this listener, into a moving and transcendent meditation on art and time.
Fontaines DC and Kneecap both delivered Irish albums worth getting excited about. Kneecap because they are the satire that Northern Ireland deserves, without being in any way a novelty rap act. Nope. They have skills, as Gaeilge too.
And Fontaines DC for capturing Dublin’s atmosphere, and its oft-so-maddening frustrations, so well, in an idiom and energy that hearkened back to early-period Clash, without seeming derivative.
Mostly these days, I listen, with immense gratitude, to classical releases on Spotify. Leonard Elschenbroich and Alexei Grynyuk’s Beethoven Cello Sonatas was a highlight, as was Thomas Zehetmair’s exploration of the solo violin works of Bach.
The Danish Quartet’s Prism II continues a planned five-volume project linking Bach and Beethoven to modernist composers. This time, Alfred Schnittke’s.
In keeping with this year’s dulling succession of doom-laden news and prognostication, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshanna Zuboff is my essential pick.
Rapacious capitalism is in the process of eating the world, and now it’s gotten metaphysical: our inner lives are being monetised, colonised and reduced to data points by prediction engines that are becoming more and more behaviour-manipulation engines. What a time to be alive!
Not a 2019 book, but more a blessed relief, I picked up Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful during the summer. An amazing feat of imaginative biography.
And the subjects, jazz musicians such as Lester Young, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Chet Baker, almost redeem us as a species.
In a year of bizarrely overpraised films (Joker) and moderately overpraised ones (The Irishman), my pick is Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir.
A masterpiece of atmosphere and an exquisite evocation of early adulthood’s protean uncertainty. And there’s a part two to look forward to next year.
Succession was a hoot. Superb performances, monstrous characters, total cynicism, baroque profanity: what more could you want?
Cork artist Frieda Meaney continues to explore the idea of nature in the anthropocene.
Her mixed-media show, After, at the Lavit Gallery in Cork, much like her touring show from 2017/18, offered space for contemplation about what it means to be alive, or to be in nature, with the knowledge that we are destroying it so extensively, and so quickly. Beautiful but disquieting work.
Westcoast-era Michael Keegan-Dolan was ushered in in style with MÁM, while the Irish National Opera had another fine year, showcasing the vocal talents of Celine Byrne, in Madama Butterfly; and Tara Erraught, in La Cenerentola.
The prevailing political culture in Ireland continues to see the arts as an add-on, a nice-to-have, rather than something essential to the full life of a free citizen of a republic.
The treatment of Lyric FM, our orchestras, and theatre practitioners all points to this prevailing philistinism.
We need to totally rethink how we fund the arts in this country. We need to make it a country where artists can live with dignity, where what they produce is valued, and not treated as a mere frippery.
It should not come down to money, but even the money argument is a no-brainer: spending on the arts has a multiplier effect that is a win-win for everyone, even the bean counters.
Looking forward to for next year...
As mentioned above, looking forward to The Souvenir II. Also, with fingers crossed and bated breath, looking forward to seeing whether the Cork Jazz Festival will re-engage with its artistic heritage.
A new play by Michael West, and directed by Annie Ryan, is always something to look forward to. For 2020, it’s The Fall of the Second Republic, a co-production with the Abbey.