Galway festival 2016: 'a powerhouse of ideas and innovation'

They were dancing in the streets last week in Galway. It wasn’t simply because the city’s international arts festival was in full swing but because it had just been announced that Galway had been named European capital of culture for 2020.

As a regular visitor to Galway, I was delighted but also felt a pang of envy. Of the €45m (£38m) budget for 2020, €39m will come from EU and state funds. Presumably, in a post-Brexit world, no UK city will ever again be eligible either for the award or for the financial boost that comes with it. If Galway deserves the recognition, it is partly because its annual arts festival, under the direction of Paul Fahy, is a powerhouse of ideas and innovation.

This year’s programme included a series of talks and debates on national identity. There was also a constant emphasis on the coming together of different art forms. I’ve already suggested this was the key to Enda Walsh’s Arlington but it was equally striking in Invitation to a Journey at Black Box theatre. This was a joint venture by CoisCéim Dance Theatre, the musical group Crash Ensemble and the Dublin-based new play company Fishamble. By working together, they offered imaginative insights into the work of the pioneering Irish furniture designer and architect Eileen Gray.

I knew precious little about Gray (1878-1976) when I went in. I was reminded, however, that her Dragon chair was sold at auction in Paris in 2009 for a record €21.9m and that she designed a celebrated vacation house on the Cote d’Azur, E1027, about which my colleague Rowan Moore has written admiringly. Through the fusion of Gavin Kostick’s script, David Bolger’s dance and Deirdre Gribbin’s music, the show explores Gray’s influence and famously private personality.

Coming from an Irish-Scottish aristocratic family, she lived mainly in France, was bisexual and, when necessary, was a combative figure: one of the richest episodes shows her engaging in a fierce dispute with Le Corbusier, who jealously vandalised E1027 by drawing, while stark naked, a series of faintly obscene doodles on its walls. The show left the impression of Gray as a fiercely independent spirit who radically influenced not only the furniture on which we sit but our attitudes to modern architecture.

Garrett Lombard, Mary Rea and Aaron Monaghan in Waiting for Godot.
superb re-imagining … Garrett Lombard, Mary Rea and Aaron Monaghan in Waiting for Godot. Photograph: Matthew Thompson


If Galway this year has proves the arts can fruitfully combine, it also offers a superb reimagining of an iconic play. I deliberately left Beckett’s Waiting for Godot out of my book The 101 Greatest Plays because I felt over the years it had lost its capacity to shock and surprise. But seeing Garry Hynes’s new production for Druid Theatre, I felt once again its tragicomic grandeur.

It begins with a prolonged and weighty silence as we look at the slumped figure of Aaron Monaghan’s Estragon. Marty Rea’s Vladimir later registers the terrified panic he feels at the prospect of their separation. Yet Hynes also plays to the hilt the couple’s comic resort to cod-melodramatic theatrical gestures.

With first-rate support from Rory Nolan as a tyrannical Pozzo and Garrett Lombard as an enslaved Lucky, the production not only reminds us that Druid is one of the world’s great acting ensembles, comparable to Chicago’s Steppenwolf. It also captures the exhaustion and despair that lies behind Beckett’s study of the human capacity for endurance.