Our regular arts/ents writers, Alan O’Riordan and Marjorie Brennan, select their personal highlights of the year.
The Wake at the Abbey Theatre was extraordinary, with Annabelle Comyn untapping all the wildness and energy in Tom Murphy’s play. A magnificent tour of the dark side of our country’s collective psyche, recent past, communal rituals and material obsessions.
I probably never laughed more at a show than I did for the first hour of the Gate’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Not that we were spared the viciousness of George and Martha’s verbal assaults on each other — Fiona Bell and Denis Conway were well able to deliver that side of Edward Albee’s play too.
At the Dublin Theatre Festival, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s latest bit of myth-making, Loch na hEala, married the ancient and the modern in a Midlands fairytale of raw power.
The live music highlights came thick and fast between October and November. First, there was a Guinness Cork Jazz Festival that got its mojo back after some lacklustre years.
Then, there was a beautiful concert by Charles Lloyd in Vicar Street. Another saxophone legend, Wayne Shorter, came a couple of weeks later, to the National Concert Hall, ensuring our cup did really run over, in a gig that was a stunning display of ingenuity, ambition and creativity. An astounding performance, especially from a performer in his eighties.
What a year for misery listening. David Bowie and Leonard Cohen signed off in heartbreaking style, while Nick Cave and Radiohead plucked raw nerves beautifully.
A Tribe Called Quest’s return, too, came under the shadow of mortality. It was a fitting musical conclusion to the Obama years, looking backward with conviction and forward with defiance.
Sometimes a memorable reading experience is purely subjective, a question of when you read, not what you read. This was the case with Bright, Precious Days.
Jay McInerney’s novel is formulaic and silly, but it caught me at just the right moment. It’s a book about how to reconcile one’s past ambition with present reality; about how, as potential becomes achievement (of whatever kind), to accept the life you’ve created.
Objectively speaking, Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones was superior — a fresh, demanding read.
It was a curious year for film. Son of Saul was extraordinary, but, apart from that, much for which I had huge expectations proved a tad disappointing, Arrival and Anomalisa among them.
The Revenant, meanwhile, was a shambles. Perhaps as a corollary of that, I didn’t expect much from Hail, Ceasar! But I was in transports of joy watching it — a film as lovable as the era that inspired it. The No Dames routine was my favourite five minutes of the entire year.
Stranger Things was OK, but Westworld had me wondering if I’d reached peak HBO. I took me to new depths of boredom. HyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis’s latest, on BBC’s iPlayer, lived up to the postmodern bizarreness of the year we’ve just had. The Americans also kept me hooked for another series.
The continued decline in provision for opera, especially given the upswing of native talent, is a continued source of disappointment. Rather than commissioning reports, or wrangling over the cost of the art form and its perceived elitism, we should just get behind it because that’s what grown-up European countries do.
Looking forward to...
The Abbey’s new directors won my approval simply by restaging one of my all-time favourites, Dublin by Lamplight, but I’m looking forward to how the full programme plays out. I’m half in dread, half in hope waiting to see if the ambitions for Creative Ireland are fulfilled.
It was another great year for Irish writing, with Lisa McInerney conquering all before her with her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, a picaresque journey through Cork’s underbelly. McInerney appeared at Crosstown Drift, a moveable feast of readings and events held in various locations across Cork City.
In the cosy surrounds of Callanan’s pub, Kevin Barry held the audience in the palm of his hand with a hilarious rendition of his short story ‘The Fjord of Killary’. The fledgling mini-fest, curated by Kevin Barry and his wife Olivia Smith with Joe Kelly from Live at St Luke’s, was a great addition to the Cork Midsummer Festival programme.
Also appearing at Crosstown Drift was Mike McCormack, who won the prestigious Goldsmiths Prize for his experimental novel Solar Bones. It was a big win for small Irish publisher Tramp Press, also responsible for one of my highlights of the year, Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo. This collection of short, sharp, and sometimes shocking stories lingered long in my mind.
It was a pleasure to hear Walsh read so beautifully from her work at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, where feminist icon Gloria Steinem topped the bill.
My highlight, not just of this year but of any year, was speaking to her ahead of her appearance at the festival, where she charmed and invigorated a packed audience with her passion and energy. Her memoir On the Road was a hugely entertaining, informative, and moving insight into a life spent campaigning for women’s rights.
I bought the album Chaleur Humaine by Christine and The Queens on the strength of a spine-tingling performance on the Graham Norton Show. French singer Héloïse Letissier brings something genuinely interesting and new to the party with a beguiling blend of beautiful melodies and electronic beats.
While appointment TV is becoming a thing of the past as streaming takes over, there was still one show that was a live must-watch. Strictly Come Dancing was the ultimate feelgood family viewing, its glitter and glamour brightening up a dark year.
I never thought I would be laughing out loud at a British politician performing ‘Gangnam Style’ but Ed Balls obliged with one of the most talked-about television performances of the year. The show also showed how the beauty of dance can be balm for the soul; who could forget Danny and Oti’s goosebump-inducing samba?
While series such as Happy Valley, The Missing, and The Fall gripped many viewers, I veered very much towards escapist fare this year, and it doesn’t come more escapist than Jane the Virgin on Netflix.
This captivating and clever show about a young Miami native who is artificially inseminated by accident skilfully weaves romance, comedy, and suspense, telenovela-style, and features a Golden Globe-winning performance from Gina Rodriguez.
2016 was the year podcasts really exploded but trying to fish out the good ones can be difficult as the range of subjects covered becomes increasingly esoteric.
While the quality of Radiolab, Fresh Air, and This American Life have not dimmed, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History provided an entertainingly novel look at a disparate range of subjects.
I was greatly looking forward to the return of the Gilmore Girls on Netflix. Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, it failed to live up to the hype.
Looking forward to...
Seeing what Channel 4 will do to the Great British Bake-Off minus Mary, Mel, and Sue but plus ad breaks. The return of Twin Peaks on Showtime — please, David Lynch, make it good. Also, La La Land — Ryan Gosling singing and dancing, what’s not to like?
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