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Colm Toibin wraps up Galway’s literary affair

Colm Toibin, at GAF 2011

The final literary event as part of the 2011 Galway Arts Festival was certainly a resounding way in which to draw a truly amazing Festival to a close. The IMPAC award winner and Booker prize nominee Colm Toibin did not disappoint the sell-out crowd that filled the Meyrick Hotel on a sun-filled Saturday on the final weekend of the Galway Arts Festival. While the thousands were enjoying the festivities on the thronged Galway streets, those with a ticket for Toibin certainly would not swap for any prize.

Toibin was in warm and open form as he took to the lectern on stage in the Connemara Suite of the Meyrick. He started into a story recounting his experiences of regional arts festivals in Ireland. Toibin outlined how the Gorey Arts Festival , founded by his late friend Paul Funge, opened up such opportunities throughout the early 1970’s and onwards as it afforded the locals to see amazing works of theatre, hear great writers read their works and to see the works of great artists.

He talked in particular about visit to the Gorey Arts Festival by Patrick MaGee and Jack McGowran, both renowned acquaintances of Samuel Beckett and also famous actors of his work, so much so that Krapp’s Last Tape actually had a working title of ‘Monologue for Magee’. Toibin spoke of these characters, Beckett, Magee and McGowran as if he was with old friends sharing a drink and a story. This affability, genuine warmth and connection with his readers as well as with the people he is writing on paper about makes Toibin one of Ireland’s most loved and successful of contemporary writers.

Toibin read from his latest work, his collection of short stories the Empty Family (Read my review of this here ) Reading the story Two Women, Toibin presented one of the most memorable stories from the collection. Set in present-day Ireland, a divorced and middle-aged TV producer who has put all of her strength and passion into her career is brought to relive her past lost love when she encounters a woman from the past: a woman she has never met but with him she shares so much experience and people.

The Empty Family

Following this the floor was opened up for questions for Toibin. No shortage of willing volunteers as question after question were ably taken by the guest of honour. When asked about his setting out to write his IMPAC-winning work, The Master, Toibin answered he wanted to really get to know the man, Henry James, and not the outward character which people may have known. To Toibin, James was a mysterious character, often proving to be the opposite of what you thought. James was gay but loved the company of women as well as men, he was often reclusive but ate out every evening in large company. James’ writing, Toibin, described, is full of winding and snaking sentences, full of sub-clauses. You don’t get to know the Henry James, the man, from his writing, as you would be able to know James Joyce from reading his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Toibin was also asked about his inspiration about his Costa Prize-winning novel, Brooklyn. Again delving into his rich personal memory, he talks of the scene at his father’s wake. Colm Tobin is a twelve-year-old and bewildered by the streams of people calling to the house, stayed so long and talked and talked with his family. One woman in particular stood out, even after all these years. She had a pile of letters in her hand, all from Brooklyn: not from U.S.A., not from New York, but from Brooklyn. “That’s the woman whose daughter went to America but came home”, Colm heard people whisper. He never forgot this woman, even over the following forty years or so, and so Brooklyn came to be.

Speaking about the books ending (no spoilers will be given!) Toibin simply outlined how he ended the book the way he wanted to end it but crucially, he got their convincingly. He had conceived other endings but would do a disservice by inserting radical changes that would arrive at a contrived ending.

Finally, Toibin was asked about what contemporary writers he is currently reading. His first response was an American writer who actually also read at this year’s Galway Arts Festival – Willy Vlautin. Vlautin (nearly if not fully) stole the show when he shared the bill with Roddy Doyle. (read review here ) Upstaging Doyle is no easy feat but Vlautin made a new home from home for himself in Galway with his fantastic writing and engaging and humorous personality. Toibin hailed Vlautin as “a real discovery. He writes in beautiful American tones and with an absolute knowledge of rhythm, coming as no surprise that he (Vlautin) is an accomplished musician. Also singled out by Toibin were the Austrian short-story writer, Tim Wenton, Welsh writer Tessa Hadley and of course Canadian Alice Munroe.

It was a fascinating evening and a great if also rare opportunity for an intimate evening with the one and only Toibin. Evening like these are exactly what Arts Festivals are made for –probably along the lines of what Toibin felt like attending the Gorey Arts Festival all those years ago.

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Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Books, Culture

 

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Review: Kevin Barry’s Debut Novel, ‘City of Bohane’.

City of Bohane

For those of you read “There Are Little Kingdoms”, the wonderful and Rooney Prize winning collection of short stories by Kevin Barry, his debut novel was perhaps the most eagerly awaited publication by any Irish writer for quite some time. Published in March of this year, the novel was launched to a sell out crowd at the Druid Theatre, Galway as part of the city’s renowned Cùirt International Festival of Literature. On that occasion, Barry himself was on hand to give a resounding reading of his latest creation, the City of Bohane and its many inhabitants.

Bohane is the throbbing epicentre of Big Nothin’. Its inhabitants are tribal, vicious, and territorial with a feral and possessive quality. The map accompanying the book to this area could be a province of Tolkien’s Middle Earth as much as this alternate western Irish seaboard of 2054. The river flows into the heart of Bohane and brings with it the smell and air the city folk breath as they go about their daily business of drinking, whoring, smoking, fighting and gambling. “Whatever is wrong with us is coming in off that river. No argument: the taint of badness on the city’s air is a taint off that river.” The city is kept in line, just back from the edge of total deprivation by Logan Hartnett and his gang The Fancy. With his heavy muscle, the exquisitely named Fucker Burke and Wolfie Stanners, things tick along as only they can in Bohane.

To read the rest of my review, which is published on Writing.ie, please click here and go to www.writiting.ie for more.

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Books

 

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Willy Vlautin & Roddy Doyle kick off GAF’s literary side

The Meyrick Hotel overlooking Eyre Square in the heart of Galway City played host to an evening with acclaimed writers Roddy Doyle and Willy Vlautin. In front of a crowd of some two hundred people both writers took to the stage and chatted interestedly to each other while waiting for proceedings to get underway. It was this genuine bon-homie between Doyle and Vlautin that made this such an enjoyable evening.

Vlautin was first to read, choosing to take a piece from his latest and award-winning (the 2010 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction) Lean on Pete. Published by Faber, the book was received to widespread critical acclaim and looking at the crowd tuned intently to Vlautin’s stories told in his endearing North Western US accent. Vlautin outlined how he developed his love of writing and thanked the influence of his English- teacher grandmother. Describing himself as a horrible student, Vlautin’s grandmother used to read him The Count of Monte Christo and presented him with his own copy of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, which set him on course to be a dedicated follower of Doyle’s work. In fact, Vlautin genuinely did seem star-struck to be sharing the stage with one of his literary idols.

Vlautin and Doyle. Pic by Sinead McKee

As Vlautin introduced the character and narrator of his book Lean on Pete, the 15-year old Charlie Thompson, Vlautin explained how he did connect with Charlie as someone who took to the road to travel on the American highways and experience life as he would find it and as it came to him. Lamenting never having a pick-up truck or anything as ‘typically’ suitable to such driving, Vlautin never the less took the road in his ’82 Honda Civic and didn’t look back.

In his book, Charlie is a left to fend for himself by his wayward single-father and takes to the road in search of life, acceptance and also a sense of family normality. He ends up tracing the dirt-tracks of Portland, Oregan and gets work at the local racetrack. Here Charlie tends to a less than thoroughbred horse of the title name of the book. The story is rightly noted as being one of the reads of the year and sets out Vlautin as an author as credible and talented as he is a musician. His band Richmond Fontaine have released their tenth album and they played a sell-out concert at the Roisin Dubh last night, also as part of the Galway Arts Festival.

Roddy Doyle was introduced to rapturous applause. No stranger to reading at Galway’s Festivals, Doyle read at the 2010 Cùirt international Festival of Literature in Galway. Noticeably pleased to be on the bill at this year’s Arts Festival, he explained how we wanted to take a break from touring this year following the extensive promotion of his novel last year The Dead Republic, but simply could not turn down Paul Fahy’s offer to attend the Festival on the bill with Willy Vlautin. With tongue firmly in cheek he declared to the crowd he was delighted to be back in Ireland’s second best city! Doyle read a short story from his recently published collection, Bullfighting. The story, Animals, is a charming, funny and touching story of family life that can resonate with people from any background or place within the family. Mother, father, son or daughter, it matters not your age as all have those cherished, funny or even heartbreaking moments with those additions to the household: the family pet.

In the following Q & A with the audience both writers spoke candidly and indeed gave more time than you would expect to make sure everyone who wanted one got their books autographed and a few words of good wishes to boot. When asked about his writing style Doyle thoughtfully admitted he didn’t have strict guidelines he stuck to when it came to his novels or his short fiction. Simply stating he stayed at his desk in his converted attic “for as long was needed or until it is done, whichever came first”. He did however say he was much fussier at the drafting phase at least, with his short fiction, often writing a paragraph at one sitting, leaving it be and returning to it later. With his novels he would write feverously with the most work coming down the line at the editing phase.

The final question of the evening was put to both writers but fielded by Doyle. It asked where is the place of literature and writing for teenagers in teaching in Modern Ireland, which is faced with ever-growing technology, social networks and computer games. Doyle, himself a former teacher, suggested not to worry so much and outlined he has a lot of faith in today’s youth. He sees them reading a lot more than they used to. Their reading may not be big novels read from cover to cover or newspapers from front to back page, but today’s youth are extremely clued into the world and should be trusted. At his writing club for young people in Dublin, Doyle sees so many teenagers coming in and sitting and simply reading and writing for hours at end. Whilst perhaps less the norm it is still proof the desire for great stories is alive and well in today’s younger generations.

It was a fitting end to what was a truly great evening. As the crowd wandered from the Meyrick, Doyle could be spotted relaxing and chatting with a pint. It was off to the Rosin Dubh for Vlautin and a concert with his band Richmond Fontaine. It just shows there are few spare moments to be had at the Galway Arts Festival. I have enjoyed catching up with his music as much as I have with his writing and here is one of many great tracks by the four-piece alt-rock/country band based out of Portland, Oregan. Enjoy!

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2011 in Culture

 

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Macnas bring the noise, the brilliance and fierce beauty

This Fierce Beauty

If it’s possible for a single group or event to sum up the spirit of the Galway Arts Festival, to really show how it connects to the city, to the West of Ireland and to its people and many visitors, then you need not look past the Macnas parade. This year’s parade entitled This Fierce Beauty attracted huge crowds as the Macnas madness and mayhem snaked its way from the Spanish Arch up Quay Street, Shop Street and along the Salmon Weir Bridge as if heading its way home to the Festival Big Top which loomed and glowed in a blue hue in the Galway dusk. The atmosphere was simply incredible. It was a purely joyous event for the thousands who cheered on the many giant beasts, mystical creatures, drummers, dancers and general unrestrained crazies.

Artistic director Noeline Kavanagh has created something truly special for the Galway Arts Festival which has for long now been recognised as just that – special. The crowd was buoyant and in real festival mood as the smoke and flares that signalled the start of the parade. Winged dragons inspired by Da Vinci, giant dogs apparently representing Shane MacGowan and Patti Smith, a huge seated rhinoceros glowering down at the people represented the poet William Blake but perhaps most striking of all was The Girl, an 18 foot tall walking effigy of hope. With her billowing hair and blinking eyes, you felt like you would blindly follow this girl and her crew wherever they were headed. With an unrecognisable Paul Fahy, dressed as a 10 foot tall navigator at the head of the parade, wherever the uncharted waters ahead may lay, we all could do well to folllow Macnas’ lead.

Click the link below for images, video and just a hint of what it was like to see “This Fierce Beauty”.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/56519887@N08/sets/72157627222072112/

http://www.flickr.com//photos/56519887@N08/sets/72157627222072112/show/

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2011 in Culture, Theatre, Uncategorized

 

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As You Are Now So Once Were We

Do you feel like you know Dublin? Really know it? Do you walk the same route along the same streets every day? Is your morning routine so rigid that it almost feels like you are repeating it, on loop, day in day out? Get up at the same time, go to the bathroom, eat breakfast at the same table with the same people and then go out the same door, together.

The Company

Are you in a routine so much that it feels like you are less in a real world and more in a rehearsal? This award winning work (Best Production, Absolut Fringe 2010) by the Company takes this ideas of ‘a day in the life’ and also taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Ulysses tracks the journey of each of the four characters from waking in the morning to their journey through Dublin City to the Peacock theatre where they must stage their new work, whatever that may be.

The Company members Rob, Tanya, Nyree and Brian play heightened characterised versions of themselves. The Peacock stage has seldom looked so open as Dublin City and its buildings and ‘box towers’ are represented by sweetly choreographed large cardboard boxes. The opening sequence where the ‘set-up’ of the stage is played out before you like a manic session of lego building.

The audience are taken on a virtual walking tour of Dublin, where streets, sights, smells and places are all name-checked. The concept of associating certain foods and smells with certain places in the city is reminiscent of scenes from Joyce’s book. The idea of ‘rehearsal’ is examined throughout the work as pieces are replayed, altered and replayed again. The story of Paddy Dignam is one such case. If time can be slowed, stalled and replayed, the question of intervention crops up, where all of us are in a social media-led, isolated bubble which leaves less time for actual human contact as simple as a hug as we concentrate more on virtual ‘poking’. The irony is not lost that as crowds pulse through the city streets as we are hell bent on getting from A to B without knowing what is actually around us.

As You Are Now So Once Were We. Image courtesy of the Abbey Theatre

The work is extremely humorous, the in-jokes and deliberate over-reacting, I thought, gave a particular aspect which I believe can easily be lost in a work of this form and that is a connection with the audience and a commitment to entertain and engage. I imagine it to be the only work at the national theatre to refer to its Artistic Director Fiach McConghail as ‘The F-Bomb!”

The influence and direction by Jose Miguel Jimenez, who was seated in the audience, plays no small part in the production as he strives to keep the whole concept of time – the moment and our place in that moment – fluid and on track. With As You Are Now… Jimenez has justified the much hype about his ideas and abilities. He, along with the Company, really have set Irish theatre ablaze with a new, exciting and unique brand of work.

What grated me somewhat were not the themes of the play, or its perhaps piggybacking-use and reference to Ulysses but actually what I heard and read from numerous others who saw this work. Yes, the Company are brash, yes, they are riding a huge wave of success and have big ideas and are experimenting with new forms that are not everyone’s ‘thing’ or within their comfort zone of theatre with a straight narrative. The Company are good, and they know it. But is this really a bad thing? It still means they are good! And when they are good, they are very good.

As You Once Were Now So Once Were We runs on the Peacock stage at the Abbey until 5 February.

Meet the members of the Company in conversation with theatre critic Peter Crawley at the Abbey, post-show, Wednesday 2 February.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2011 in Abbey Theatre

 

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The Memory Palace at Galway’s Theatre Festival

'Memory Palace' at Nuns Island theatre

Blue Patch productions staged their work-in-progress piece, The Memory Palace, as part of the third annual Galway Theatre Festival. Using characters and stories from Greek mythology, the playwright Jane Madden strives to explore the realms of our memory, our identity and the uncharted regions of our psyche. When we die we cross into the Underworld and are given a choice; to drink from the river Lethe and forget all our pain or to drink from the river Mnemsoyne and remember everything. Lottie chooses to remember but at what cost?

The black-box setting of Nuns Island theatre aptly mimics the purgatorial scene between memory and between realities. Aoife Connolly, who plays Lottie, the woman who is lost in time and place, is still and frozen, like a seated sphinx. “You are here”, she half acknowledges, half questions Mimi. “I was always here, since before” This exchange places the emphasis on what has already transpired, past actions that are beyond recollection by Lottie.

As she drinks the water of the river Mnemsoyne and memory becomes reticent, there is purpose to the goading of Andy Crowe’s Mimi, in forcing Lottie to remember, regardless of the pain this will bring. The past and thoughts, the working of Lottie’s mind are relayed on the screen projected behind the character, a blurred sequence of images that hint at what transpired. The imagery of the clothes force the realization of a ruined wedding, a distorted union; “My dress, his suit, his tie, that he wore for me”.

Aisling Quinn’s beautiful vocals and the staggered entrance on-stage of Andrea Scott forces a flashback like effect which presents a separate possibility; that the happy ending and wedding of Lottie is not her memory at all, but that of Scott’s character, Faye, who married the love and groom of Lottie. These overlapping lives and concentric stories blur the narrative and question who in fact owns the story.

Bluepatch’s production is extremely interesting and current. It has traces of works that trace the female reawakening to a lost and broken past, as Olwen Fouere hauntingly did is Sodome My Love and it also has parallels with works with other exciting groups such as The Company who explore the identity and memory of the modern form.

It is ironic that as a memory play, what Madden chooses to leave out and chooses to forget provides more of the story than we actually see.

www.bluepatchproductions.com

 

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2010 in Culture, Theatre

 

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