For many of the 58 years of its life, the much loved Belfast Festival at Queen’s was a comfortingly familiar event. Its annual launch was a big, boozy party in the city’s university quarter, attended by a large crowd of the usual suspects from the arts community. The bulging programme contained big names from all over the world, who were prepared to brave the uneasy atmosphere of the Troubles simply because they loved Belfast and loved being part of the festival.
But latterly, under a succession of enterprising directors – Robert Agnew, Sean Doran, Rosie Turner, Stella Hall, Graeme Farrow and, since 2013, Richard Wakely – it has weathered dizzying changes in profile and content, as well as a succession of financial and existential crises. Perilous though its very continuation may, at times, have been, its profile and programming have thrived and life around the festival has rarely been dull.
Nobody, however, could have imagined that the 2020 festival would be hit by, of all things, a pandemic, causing its programme to be reimagined and reset in an age of technological wizardry. Wakely has married the proverbial bedfellows of necessity and invention in presenting two weeks of online and digitally conceived theatre, dance, music, conversation and visual arts, enabling audiences to sit back and enjoy from the warmth and comfort of their own homes. Thus, the habitual festival experience of venturing out into dark, chilly Belfast nights, wading ankle deep through autumn leaves from one venue to another, has been replaced with something infinitely less physically taxing.
As usual, Northern Ireland’s production companies rub shoulders with their international counterparts. One of the region’s longest established independents Big Telly came up with its fifth piece of theatre made during lockdown. Its choice of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was, to put it mildly, risky. But director Zoe Seaton’s judicious pruning of the text and ingenious, socially distanced blocking results in a sparse, chilling rendering of petty ambition laid bare.
At its core is a tale of misplaced power and ambition. Nicky Harley’s Lady Macbeth is a sensuous, cold hearted suburban wife, whose ambition for her leering, razor-faced husband propels him into a monarchical role for which they are both singularly unsuited and unworthy. Sounds familiar? Physical distance enhances the fire and ice of their relationship, which is shaped and influenced by three predatory witches, practicing their black arts from an abandoned theatre.
Cahoots NI is a company whose high quality productions regularly tour internationally. The imagination of its artistic director Paul McEneaney brooks no refusals, recognises no boundaries. The University of Imagination and Wonder was crafted specifically as a piece of immersive digital theatre for family audiences. Its content is partially drawn from two previously successful stage productions, here pitched into a quirky academic establishment, whose team of wacky professors speed the young audience undergraduates through a maze of learning zones.
The audience is drawn into plotting its own course, using memory manipulation, maths and logic to enter into the worlds of space, art and mathematics (unexpectedly, the most engaging). It’s all fiendishly clever and terrific fun.
Contemporary dance is a regular staple of the festival programme but this year it must take its place virtually. One Day Pina Asked, Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman’s intimate, astutely judged documentary about the creative methodology of the legendary dancer/choreographer Pina Bausch kicks off proceedings.
Days later, audiences are invited to earwig on an intriguing, playful conversation between Belfast dance-maker Oona Doherty and her collaborator Dublin-based photographer/video artist Luca Truffarelli. The instinctive, wordless shared language they have forged is vividly illustrated via screened extracts from Doherty’s celebrated Hard to be Soft dance theatre quartet.
The festival’s commitment to the local performing arts sector is underlined by an online showcase, co-hosted by the Northern Ireland Arts Council and New York’s Irish Arts Center. It provides a platform for tour-ready work by some of the region’s leading companies and practitioners. These include Abomination: A DUP Opera by Conor Mitchell; three new dance pieces – Doherty’s Körper and Leib, Eileen McClory’s Brink and Dylan Quinn’s Questions of a Man; Removed, a powerful solo piece about the care system by writer/social activist Fionnuala Kennedy; Big Telly’s Macbeth, which transferred virtually from the festival to Creation Theatre Company, Oxford.
The literary element of the festival finds vibrant expression in No Word for ‘Stay’, a panel discussion about the place of poetry in the Northern Ireland Troubles, co-curated by poets Maria McManus and Moyra Donaldson and Nora Hickey, directrice of the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris.
And what a pleasure it is on a rainy Saturday afternoon to tune into a conversation between two exceptional debutant writers, Bryan Washington and Paul Mendez. From the heat of Houston, Texas and the autumn chill of London respectively, the two read from their highly acclaimed novels Lot and Rainbow Milk, finding inspiring common ground in their exchanges about race and sexuality from their contrasting cultural perspectives.
Their experiences find additional resonance in the world premiere of Josette Bushell-Mingo’s powerful film Call Nina!, her documentary tracing the creation of her solo show Nina, A Story About Me and Nina Simone, which she performed at the 2018 festival. Her angry, searching exploration of what it means to be a black actress in contemporary European theatre echo uncannily through Washington and Mendez’s exchange.
Conor Mitchell and his Belfast Ensemble embark on a new create perspective, looking into the past rather than the future with Septet (For Four), a live music/video performance, commemorating the 250th birthday of Beethoven. The rarely performed score, beautifully played live and dramatically intersecting with the dance performance, underlines Mitchell’s assertion that it represents, quite simply, a miniature orchestra.
There was more, much more, in this unique incarnation of the Belfast International Festival. Its carefully chosen and sensitively curated programme, created for the strange, strange world of the year 2020, will go down merrily in festival history.