From Derry/Londonderry’s City of Culture year to the best of gigs and art in Belfast, Northern Ireland thrived in entertainment and culture this year. JOANNE SAVAGE picks out the cultural highlights that made 2013 so special in our cultural history and hopes 2014 will keep us moving forwards as opposed to mulling over the Troubles in bad comedy and plays
THIS was a crucial year in arts and culture for Northern Ireland and one that will of course be remembered for the momentous programme that made-up Derry/Londonderry’s City of Culture year, the Turner Prize being held here - the first time it has been held outside of London in its 29-year-history - a true highlight among a glittering array of exhibitions, music, theatre, film festivals, comedy, appearances by huge names like Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and American beatnik and playwright Sam Shepherd among many other stand-out appearances and events that have had the Maiden City culturally buzzing like rarely before.
The Sons and Daughters concert featuring Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and later performances by soul-singer Bronagh Gallagher and the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon got the ‘Legenderry’ year off to a musical, flourishing start and the line-up continued to surprise over the last 12 months.
Belfast-based artist Rita Duffy held a hugely thought-provoking and typically politically concious installation work at the old City Factory on Patrick Street featuring Singer sewing machines and arranging for women who used to work there to meet up and share their stories of the working conditions they endured there as well as the laughs they shared while keeping their stitches in time.
The Return of Colimcille, masterminded by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who worked with Oscar-winning Director Danny Boyle on the London Olympics opening ceremony, created a parade extravaganza that celebrated Saint Colmcille’s founding of Derry and featured a wealth of fireworks, and moving displays pulling in cutural references from the Undertones (Teenage Kicks - anyone?) to Derry’s Troubled past; this was one of the most fabulous outdoor parades the Maiden City has surely ever seen. This was followed quickly of course by the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which saw Scottish bagpipe experts perform alongside Nothern Irish-trained Highland and Irish dancers and was a hugely impressive and meiculously organised display of Ulster Scots Culture that ended in a dance of unity in which Highland and Irish dancers held hands and danced each others’ steps in a moving display of the new dawn Londonderry has arrived at after years of hardship throughout the Troubles.
Cinema City - which featured showings of Hitchcock classics accompanied by orchestral performances and a Q&A with director of Transpotting and Slumbdog Millionaire Danny Boyle, as another prestigious addition as was Radio One’s Weekend which saw stomping performances by a huge number of big pop and rock names including Bruno Mars, Calvin Harris, Rita Ora, Ellie Goulding, The Script, Biffy Clyro, and Paramore.
Another particular favourite of mine was the Sky Orchestra- the very sight of hot air balloons high above the earth, the strains of classical mucic turning the city into an early morning sky-high symphony - was something rare to see, vastly original, and somehow symbolic of a new hope and a new Londonderry that has left behind the grievances and traumas and losses of the past to face bravely and boldly into a new future.
Next to Sky Orchestra and Colin Bateman’s jaunty punk musical Teenage Kicks - which was witty, cool, retro, funny and in typically Bateman fashion - really rather cheeky, the Lumiere the festival of light which turned Derry into a giant illumimated artwork of dazzling, shimmering figures and neon signs, the Turner Prize exhibition coming to the revamped former Ebington Barracks - now a chic galley space soon to be turned into a cultural hub of offfices - was a massive coup for the Maiden City and one that displayed what new cultural standing Londonderry has achieved in the past year.
The exhibition was heavy on interactive work - featuring exchanges on the economy with Tino Sehgal, charcoal drawing of a peeing anamatronic model constitued David Shrigley’s work, spontanous oil paintings of fictional black people by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and - the winning entry - an installation-cum-video piece by French artist Laure Prouvost which invited guests to a fictive tea party about fictionalisted realtives and contemplated the faultlines between storytelling and truth with incredible finesse.
And it wasn’t only in Derry/Londonderry that it was all happening culturally, in Belfast this year at the Lyric we saw perhaps the best production of Behan at the Chelsea starring Adrian Dunbar which recently impressed in New York, and the MAC impressed with innovative takes on Oscar Wilde plays while Fifty Shades of Red White and Blue scandalised and raised laughs at the Grand Opera House and Swan Lake showed how moving and yet raunchy modern ballet has become.
And we were spoilt for fabulous gigs too: Jose Carreras performed at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s; Girl’s Aloud played a farewell concert at the Odyssey; American rockers The Killers also performed in Belfast to great accalaim, Tennent’s Vital saw performances by outstanding acts including Kings of Leon, Swedish dance favourites Avicii and the ever dapper Tinnie Tempah, while Belsonic offered us an off-the-scale brilliant performance by Nine Inch Nails at Custom House Square - with frontman Trent Reznor in full-throttle form with his darkly challenging industrial rock. And Depeche Mode took us back to the best of the Eighties in the best possible way at the Odyssey - sending the crowds into mad singing and dancing as they played a backlist that includes Personal Jesus, Sound of Silence and Just Can’t Get Enough (and we couldn’t).
And we had a very strong year in locally-proudced visual arts too including an astonishing series of baroque style works by Newtownards-born artist Andrew Haslett featuring intricate oils of Mary Magdalene, Judas Iscariot and St Peter in his moment of denying Jesus at Cregagh Library.
As usual the annual RUA exhibition displayed the high standard enjoyed in the visual arts right across Northern Ireland, with fabulous contributions from RUA members Colin Davidson and Jack Packenham alongside new work from emerging painter Ian Cumberland and endlessly inventive sugar-artist Brendan Jamison - who is making artworks with sugar few would have imagined possible.
This year was also a special year for Beckett fans in Northern Ireland with the Happy Days International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen which featured an astonishing performance of the playwright’s one-woman show Not-I, and discussions on Beckett’s work from top scholars and enthusiasts.
So here’s to another year of cultural glut here in Northern Ireland, and please, oh please, lets have even more comedy gigs, great music, fabulous art but just no more bad plays about the Troubles that base themselves in hoary sectarian stereotypes (Forget Turkey at the Lyric was one particular disappointment) that only lead us to think backwards as opposed to positively towards the future (- perhaps the greatest example the late and legendary Mandela taught us in how to move a fractured society forwards -) and a Nothern Ireland no longer defined by intransigence, conflict and gumnen. In this writer’s opinion, the arts do have a redemptive role to play in moving this society forwards - so here’s hoping those whose careers are based on Troubles-only material (you know who you are) find new careers and artists interested in art beyond this excel more than they have hitherto been allowed. Which is not to say the Troubles cannot be engaged with in our local art and culture; rather, it would be nice if we kept seeeing a broader reach in the thematic concerns of Northern Irish art, so that what has been known as the ‘Troubles art industry’ finally becomes relegated to the past, where, in my opinion, it belongs. Let’s keep being creative and let’s keep making it a new Northern Ireland - just as Mandela would have wanted us to.