This year’s Cuirt Festival of Literature: an amazing line-up

I’ve just come back from the House Hotel where I had the privilege of launching this year’s Cuirt Festival, which is being directed by Dani Gill. 

As I said tonight, it’s a sign of a great festival programme when your first thought is not “what am I going to see?” but “what am I going to have to miss?” That’s certainly my feeling this year: there’s so much to enjoy that it won’t be possible to get to everything. And there’s really a sense that Dani Gill is making her mark: Cuirt is now one of those Festivals where audiences will try things out because they trust the programmer. 

If you like Irish fiction, there are lots of readings to enjoy – Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton will be there, and so too will three major emerging writers: Eimear McBride, Donal Ryan and Colin Barrett. Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is, to use an appropriate cliche, an instant classic – he has an extraordinary ability to evoke an entire way of life through the creation of vivid narrative voices, and in the process has written one of the best representations of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland – though the book will be read long after the Celtic Tiger has been forgotten, I think. And it’s also clear that McBride is a major talent: truly original and courageous in her use of language and form. 

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Anakana Schofield & Dónal Ryan

There’s also a really interesting young Irish writer called Anakana Schofiel – whose work I haven’t read but who I’m really looking forward to hearing. 

I’m also looking forward to a great international line-up which includes  Patrick De Witt, whose literary Western the Sisters Brothers is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last few years.

For people who like poetry, there’s a double bill with Liz Lochhead and Fleur Adock. And Joanne Harris, author of Chocolatwill be there too. I suspect hers will be the first reading to sell out: I was in Eason’s yesterday and spotted two different people buying her new book about the Norse God Loki in the space of about five minutes… 

The event I’m most excited about is a double bill featuring Eleanor Catton and Rachel Kushner. Catton won the Booker last year for The Luminaries, a book that has received a lot of attention for its length, and perhaps insufficient attention for all of its other, more interesting, characteristics. It’s amazing to think that it’s only her second novel, and that she’s still in her 20s. I’m looking forward to seeing where she’ll be in ten or twenty years’ time. 

I’m currently reading Rachel Kushner’s the  Flamethrowers, which I am enjoying hugely. It’s about motorbikes and the New York arts scene in the 1970s, and lots of other things. And it’s amazingly vivid: the kind of writing that’s so good you can forget you’re reading. I keep having to pause just to take a moment to enjoy how good it is; it’s one of those books where I want to rush out and buy copies for everyone I know. 

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Catton and Kushner 

One other pattern that I mentioned at the launch is that roughly half of the readings this year are by women – which is certainly a greater proportion than we often find at literary festivals. That too is a very positive development, both in terms of giving visibility to emerging authors like McBride, and in terms of inspiring younger writers. As a teacher I’m always very aware of how important it is for students to be able to encounter great artists “in the flesh” – which is why we’re so lucky that we have people like Garry Hynes teaching our students in Drama here at NUI Galway, for example. I suspect that for any would-be writers, it will be massively inspiring to see successful young authors like Catton and Kushner in this city. 

The box office opens later this week, and I’d encourage people to get booking – think it’s going to be a great week for us here in Galway and that events will go quickly. 

Full programme is here: http://www.cuirt.ie/en 

 

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Irish Musical Theatre – A New Development That Has Always Been With Us

A few weeks ago, I did a brief interview with Eithne Shortall of The Sunday Times about the Irish musical. In her feature, she writes about Once and The Commitments, and wonders if these two productions suggest that we’ll see more  Irish musicals during the years ahead.

I think she’s right. I can see evidence of this growth at NUI Galway, where incoming Drama students are passionate about musical theatre, making GUMS (the university musical society) one of the university’s most vibrant student groups. And many students come to study theatre not because they have appeared in work by Synge or O’Casey or Friel, but because they were in a school production of South Pacific or Grease or West Side Story. We’re introducing classes in musical theatre from next year in an attempt both to meet that interest and to stimulate more of this kind of work.

Of course, the Irish musical has been around for a while. We saw it work brilliantly almost a decade ago (can it really be that long?) when Rough Magic premiered Bell Helicopter and Arthur Riordan’s Improbable Frequency, a musical about Ireland during the Second World War – which included such hilarious songs as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish”. And we saw it on the main stage of the Abbey only last year with Wayne Jordan’s production of Alice in Funderland by Raymond Scannell and Phillip McMahon. Each of those productions was greeted with a lot of commentary, both formal and informal, suggesting that perhaps – at last – we in Ireland might be on the verge of developing a tradition of musical theatre.

I wonder, though, if it’s quite that simple. Music and musicality have always been important if not essential for Irish plays. One of the best examples of the importance of music can be found in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock – which features a long scene in which the characters sing songs and play music on a gramophone.  It’s not a coincidence that Captain Boyle, who spends the play’s first act trying to deceive his wife, will in this scene choose to sing ‘Oh Me Darlin’ Juno, I Will Be True to Thee’ —a song intended to emphasize his honesty, which therefore reveals his duplicitous and hypocritical nature.  Another example is Mrs Madigan’s choice of the song ‘If I were a Blackbird’ to sing in the play’s second act:

   If I were a blackbird I’d whistle and sing;

I’d follow the ship that my true love was in;

An’ on the top riggin’, I’d there build me a nest,

An’ at night I would sleep on me Whillie’s white breast!

This seems quite an innocent choice, but given that her audience includes Captain Boyle—a former sailor who is supposed to have inherited a large amount of money—her choice of a love song with a maritime setting reveals a great deal about her motives.

Arguably, the play’s turning point occurs in that same scene, when we hear Juno and Mary singing ‘Home to Our Mountains’ from Verdi’s Il Travotore.  O’Casey does not transcribe the words of this piece; he does not change them to reflect the accent or social status of the singers, but states that they must sing the song well.  By showing that the two characters can express themselves perfectly well in this artform, O’Casey hints that they are capable of transcending their circumstances—and indeed makes the case that they must do so.

And then the scene concludes with the song “If You’re Irish, Come Into the Parlour” playing on the gramophone while a funeral dirge is underway – a brilliant contrast of kitsch Irishness with the solemnity of the funeral ritual.

Juno is not a musical – but its use of music is far more than incidental or contextual: it reveals character, develops the themes, shapes the audience’s responses, and offers us new ways of seeing such issues as nationalism, religion, gender, and the relationship between Irish and international culture. And it seems to me that a lot of Irish plays use music in a similar way: they are not quite musical theatre, but they are much more than “music in theatre”.

Tom Murphy has a very similar scene to O’Casey’s in his under-rated 1998 play The Wake, which again sees a family gathering for a sing-song.  And there’s  a brilliant scene in his The Gigli Concert in which the Irishman acts out the story of Gigli’s youth while Toseli’s Serenade plays in the background. In Garry Hynes’s last production of the play (which I reviewed on irish Theatre Magazine), Denis Conway matched the movements to the music so carefully that it was almost as if he was dancing at times.  And the use of song in Conversations on a Homecoming offers rare moments of beauty in a play that is otherwise quite fearlessly ugly.

In the blog, I’ve also written a few times about the use of music in contemporary plays. This pattern worries me slightly, since it reminds me of something I occasionally see in the work of inexperienced directors and writers – which is that when you can’t work out how to convey an important mood or emotion to the audience through acting, staging, or writing, you let a piece of music do the work for you (and too often it’s the same music: Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Massive Attack).

Yet when done well, music can transform a play. As I’ve recently discussed, Frank McGuinness uses a song from the Mikado beautifully in The Hanging Gardens. Similarly, Conor McPherson’s use of music is almost always successful: I’m thinking of the use of Neil Young as a kind of ironic counterpoint to the action in Shining City or of John Martyn’s Sweet Little Mystery to bring us blinking back into the sunlight in The Seafarer.  And then there’s Enda Walsh, whose use of Doris Day in Misterman and more kitsch Irish ballads in Walworth Farce add to the sinister and unsettling quality of both plays. And who can forget the contrast between the intensely verbal sisters in New Electric Ballroom and Mikel Murfi’s amazingly sung “Wondrous Place” in the same play?

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Enda Walsh, incidentally, is the only Irish dramatist I know of who has won a Grammy – since his song “Abandoned in Bandon” appears on the soundtrack to Once – the Musical.

And there are many other examples we could think of. Billy Roche’s The Cavalcaders is arguably as much a musical as The Commitments is (in both cases, song is used as part of the action – songs are only sung when they would be sung in the ‘real world’). Something similar could be said of Christina Reid’s The Belle of the Belfast City. And think of how important music is for Brian Friel – Cole Porter and traditional music in Lughnasa, Chopin in Aristocrats, Thomas Moore in The Home Place, and so on. Likewise, Elaine Murphy’s use of music in Shush seems influenced by Lughnasa – a play which, I think, must also have had an impact on Marie Jones’s restaging of the Blind Fiddler back in 2003.

I’m also conscious of how deeply invested in music so many Irish dramatists are. For example, Stewart Parker was, among many other things, a brilliant rock journalist – and it shows in his drama.

We can also see the importance of music in some of the recent adaptations that have appeared at the Abbey. As I suggested in that discussion with Eithne Shorthall, Frank McGuinness’s The Dead – which again made use of the songs of Thomas Moore – was almost like a hybrid: not quite a musical but not quite a play either. And it seems that the Abbey’s forthcoming production of The Risen People – opening next week – will be making extensive use of music too.

Quite often, establishing an Irish musical tradition is seen as being like beating the All Blacks: something we really should have done a long time ago, but will, we hope, get round to doing sometime in the near future. But could it be that the reason we don’t have a tradition of musical theatre here is because, in some ways, it’s always been so firmly embedded in our theatrical culture anyway?

Roddy Doyle, British Novelist?

A few days ago, I posted about the Donmar Warehouse’s PR campaign for The Weir, which describes Conor McPherson as one of “our” greatest living playwrights.

I was suggesting in that post that the “our” might just have been a mistake but observed that Irish writers, especially the successful ones, are often referred to as British, and that this can often feel like appropriation.

A few people contacted me either directly or via Twitter, mostly expressing frustration and citing examples of similar errors. But a few others suggested that perhaps the “our” meant “belonging to world drama”: that McPherson is “ours” in the way that Sophocles and Ibsen belong to the world… That is entirely possible, though I would note that no British theatre would ever refer to David Mamet or Bruce Norris as one of “our” (i.e. “their”) greatest living playwrights.

But really we’re just talking here about how plays are marketed, so to a certain extent it’s not worth getting too upset about a bit of inaccurate hyperbole.

That PR line contrasts with a profile of Roddy Doyle that appears over on the Guardian website. It was published yesterday. Here is the first paragraph:

Roddy Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers. He is also my favourite teacher. His books arrived when I needed them most and, like the best of educations, changed my perceptions and the course of my life.

The rest of the article goes on to pay tribute to Doyle at length, referring in some detail to many of his novels and also displaying awareness of his former career as a teacher.

The full article can be read here, and its author is Kerry Hudson. And I should thank Emily Mark Fitzgerald for pointing it out to me via Twitter.

Needless to say, the comments soon started flooding in to the Guardian website, mostly from people pointing out the error. As one user stated it is very difficult to take an article seriously when it has so egregious an error in its opening line.

Hudson posted an apology almost immediately:

I completely understand why people are unhappy and I can only apologise. I did initially draft the copy to (incorrectly) read ‘greatest British writer’ but then realised my error requested this to be changed in advance of the piece being filed with the Guardian. For whatever reason that didn’t happen.

She goes on to say that she hopes people will ignore the error and try to follow the spirit of the article in its entirety: “I was just trying to acknowledge and say thank you to someone who had a massive impact on my writing and life,” she said.

Most of the people commenting accepted that explanation/apology – and I have to say it’s refreshing to find someone who is willing to admit a mistake in the way that Hudson does. For anyone who writes anything, this kind of howler is both a perpetual fear and a perpetual risk: there are things that you know, have always known, and will always know – but for some reason will forget for the entire period that you spend writing something. So I think anyone is capable of making this kind of mistake. That is what editors are for, or used to be for.

And for some reason those kinds of massive blunders almost always appear in an opening paragraph.

Well, one commentator, using the name Pat Jackman, then raised a very pertinent question:

I mean, what is the context in which an obviously intelligent, obviously educated, presumably thirty-something journalist describes an obviously Irish author who writes specifically about the working class experience within the Irish Republic’s capital city come to actually make a statement like “Doyle is one of Britain’s greatest writers”?

And – again, admirably – Hudson actually took the time to respond to this:

In response to the question of why I ever wrote that line in the first place I think (I wrote the article a wee while ago…) I was thinking about the reach of his books – I found mine in a tiny council estate library in Great Yarmouth – but as I’ve said this was never the wording that was meant to be published. By no means was I ever trying to ‘claim’ him.

This explanation trails off slightly, but is still interesting: it’s likely that what she means is that Doyle’s work feels like an important part of the fabric of her cultural life, not as something exotic or foreign but rather as something that is recognizable and immediate.

This is probably how many Irish people would feel about Coronation Street or Manchester United, or perhaps the novels of Ian McEwan or the music of Radiohead and so on. They wouldn’t describe those things as “Irish” but they would probably use the word “our” about them in some contexts (and I’m not just referring to the way in which Irish people will say “we” when talking about their favourite English or Scottish football team) – or they would in any case feel a sense of ownership, possession, fidelity, and so on. When you really love something, it can feel like it belongs to you, and I think that’s what she was trying to express.

It’s also possible that some of this may be caused by the status of some Irish novelists within the London literary scene. It’s been observed before that sometimes Irish fiction is presented by UK-based publishers not as a national literature but as a genre. “Irish” novels may be very different from each other on the surface: Banville is very different from Enright, who is different from Toibin, who is different from Sebastian Barry, who is different from Joseph O’Connor. But novels marketed as “Irish” do seem to have similar traits: lyricism, mordant (if not morbid) humour, a focus on the past that fuses nostalgia with acts of historical retrieval. And quite recently we’ve seen a few that are set in the past and which deal with the liberation of some unusually self-possessed young woman (Ghost Light, Brooklyn, On Canaan’s Side).

And it’s also notable that the novelists I mention above play a significant role in the discussion of fiction and ideas in Britain: Enright and Toibin’s essays for publications like The London Review of Books are widely read, as are John Banville’s reviews in London and New York.

And it’s also often been observed before that these writers constantly write blurbs for each other’s novels, thus heightening the sense that they are all inter-related by more than just their place of birth.

Again I think much of this is caused not just by marketing but by the ways in which marketing in turn influences the placement and commissioning of reviews – which in turn has an impact on other reputation-building exercises such as public readings, invitations to festivals, appearances on TV, and so on.

So I can understand what Hudson felt when she led off an article about one of her favourite writers by saying that there is no-one quite like him in all the land. I feel something similar about Zadie Smith and David Greig and many other writers and musicians. I know they’re not Irish, but the worlds they create feel like they belong to me.

Commentators over on The Guardian website are characterising Hudson’s error as arising from ignorance. But perhaps rather than seeing these mistakes as evidence of the divisions between our countries (so many of the Irish complaints are tinged with annoyance at not being noticed by a bigger neighbour), we could instead see them as an example of the ways in which the two countries are intertwined in important ways, especially when it comes to our literature(s). This intertwining is not necessarily an entirely bad thing – or an entirely good thing – but it certainly needs to be better understood.

Likewise I think there needs to be an acceptance that when Irish writers have been so warmly and so thoroughly welcomed into British theatre and fiction (albeit when they write in ways that conform to some extent with expectations of what an Irish writer ought to do), this will inevitably blur some boundaries too. We in Ireland celebrate the Booker victories and Tony Awards of people whose careers are to a great extent driven by forces in London: there is a risk in doing so that we are trying to have it both ways.

And at least Hudson has admitted the mistake and tried to correct it.