Who would have thought a year ago that we would now be in the middle of a second round of annual art festivals severely curtailed by Covid. There was a quiet, unknown for this time of year, in the streets during the opening weekend of the 2021 Kilkenny Arts Festival, and heartbreaking rows in stranded rows in the Watergate Theater, reducing its 300 + auditoriums with 50 seats. It is one of the few indoor festivals this year, while elsewhere rain is the omnipresent risk for outdoor performances.
And yet, there is nonetheless a palpable sense of celebration at the festival’s events, a delight artists can make and perform, which audiences can witness – a shame so few can due to the limits of the pandemic.
Ironically, a year and a half after the start of the pandemic, in the nation’s vaccination, the festival is even more limited in what is possible than last year. There is even less nuance or consistency in regulations – to which those who work or manage audiences scrupulously adhere to – and seemingly insufficient guidance on any possible flexibility. Thus, the one-on-one performances from last year are no longer possible now, nor are the live performances, even for an audience of 50 people, in the vast and airy St Canice Cathedral, as this is no longer possible. it is not formally a performance space.
A sense of place permeates the Kilkenny Festival, its urban home, both medieval and contemporary, a constant presence
The constraints even extend to the logistics of gatherings after the show, with the pub closing at 11:30 p.m. very obvious.
This year’s program may be small, but it is heading in some interesting directions, and it has been an amazing balancing act on the part of festival director Olga Barry and her team. Barry seems optimistic, supported by the development of new works, such as Róisín Reimagined, in which Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh joins the Irish Chamber Orchestra for new arrangements of songs by sean nós, broadcast from August 13.
One of the benefits of Covid’s national response is that top artists such as Nic Amhlaoibh and Karan Casey have had time to work with the festival on innovative approaches. Superlative folk / trad singer, Casey’s I Walked Into My Head at the Watergate is a scripted musical and theatrical performance, designed as a conversation between Casey and her voice, berating herself, as she seeks to find her own voice, rather than always sing the songs of others. Far from a linear life story, they are fragments of memory, controversy, anger, tenderness and humor, flowing without batting an eyelid between English and Irish, and in and out of song and song. word. His Voice requires less lyrics, more vocals, but Casey sings a lot: ballads, rebellious songs, his own compositions, a cheeky blues track, “f ** k the patriarcat” (arguing with his Voice: can- I sing that? “But they sang together”). The performance is sometimes melodious and pure, other times dark and jarring, reaching for the piano to create an angry sound. Impressionist memories and reflections extend over performance, travel, motherhood, to the dark spaces “encrusted on me”, and toxic misogyny in music, a dark belly exposed by the collective Fair Plé, to whom the show is dedicated. Elliptical and sometimes unclear, it would be great to see this personal-becoming-political spectacle develop further.
A sense of belonging permeates the Kilkenny Festival, its urban home, both medieval and contemporary, a constant presence. It’s bustling with life at the Butler Gallery on Saturday afternoon, just over a year after the start of its spectacular new base at Evans’ Home. Outside, the patio and garden are buzzing, with cafe tables and Blaise Smith painting live portraits for his Village People series; the interior is a contrast, with Incoming, the intimate and intense film about Mediterranean migration by Richard Mosse, and the captivating installation Invitation to a Journey, evoking aspects of Eileen Gray.
Although at an early stage of development, the town’s new Abbey Quarter on the former Smithwick site, with St. Francis Abbey at its heart, already feels very present in the festival. An impressive river promenade and open spaces precede the buildings. At the Abbey, visual artist / director / composer Peter Power and a creative team including composer Michael Gallen are working on The City Is Never Finished, a theatrical stroll multimedia performance next weekend, following on from Power’s involvement in the astonishing fLux installation in St Canice a few years ago.
Further down the river, we come to the new Abbey Quarter skatepark, the setting for Dumbworld’s Carnival of Shadows installation. Layered on, then incorporating, the native skateboarders’ habitat, there’s a lot going on here, including what’s underneath. Under the bridge are projected images – reminiscent of rock art and graffiti – of bones, bodies, physicality, while through headphones we hear the composition of Brian Irvine and a medical examiner talking about the inference of information from old skeletal remains. In the present, the life of skateboarders creates an intersection, gliding, spinning and tricking. It’s a perfect counterpoint and a kind of multisensory exploration of the layers under the new concrete of this space through time.
The sense of belonging, this time Castle Yard, is also dominant in the Irish National Opera’s Outdoor Elektra, a triumph over adversity to create an exhilarating experience. For a small audience – who were two meters apart and masked despite the outside wind – the gods decided Strauss’s catchy opera needed more drama, so the heavens cried over the action. As the robust audience held their own under plastic ponchos, the exceptional cast sang, an act of will and strength decidedly in keeping with the tone of heightened rage of the opera.
Then at St Kieran’s College on Sunday, for The Nineteen by Helen Comerford, an exhibition of the same number of magnificent encaustic paintings, all textured with layers calling for the touch. En route, I pass a musical barker’s van: the tech for the opening of Tonic, the new show from Rough Magic by (and starring) Fionn Foley. Rough Magic was a master of Kilkenny’s rainy performances, but later that night the precipitation only slightly stained another sea of plastic masks and ponchos. The story of the Calibri Triplet Family Band is a hoot from the first minute, a dark musical satire set in 2047, when civilization collapsed and the end of the world is near. Said like that, of course, in the context of the end of the world, what is a pandemic and a little rain? It could be worse. Two fingers in adversity, and forward.
The Kilkenny Arts Festival continues until August 15th, kilkennyarts.fr