Limerick’s annual performance festival, the Belltable Unfringed, took audiences on a geographical and emotional journey this year. Over five days, it navigated a path through wild woods and teenage crushes, suburban shopping centres and mix-tapes of the heart. Now in its fourteenth year, the eclectic programme had offerings from touring productions but also showcased new and experimental work across several genres.
The Belltable’s Artistic Director, Joanne Beirne, says that the audience wanted something “they can enjoy but they also want to be engaged”, at the first arts festival of 2011. “A loose theme emerged in ‘feel the love’. The Unfringed is at the end of January so people can feel the first signs of spring. I think we’re all feeling such uncertainty at the moment and no-one knows how much worse it can get. It was nice to do something positive and celebratory, with work that is technically excellent and isn’t diminished in terms of subject matter.”
Productions incorporating dance and mixed media featured heavily in the line-up and were among the most successful. Swimming with my Mother was first presented for the Dublin Dance Festival 2010, and deservedly picked up an award for Best Production at the Unfringed festival. This intimate piece is performed by CoisCéim’s Artistic Director, David Bolger, and his mother, Madge. It is a duet of memory and movement that transports you into the waves on Sandymount Strand. Their twin loves of dancing and swimming are also explored through recorded interviews, abstract visuals and music. The love between mother and son—and the innate rhythm borne out of that closeness—is deeply moving.
The use of sound recordings with dance to communicate a sense of place was also used to great effect in 30 Cecil Street (the Limerick Athenaeum), which was choreographed and performed by Dan Canham. Interviews and atmospheric sound were played while Canham mapped out the building’s floor-plan, then evoked the former guises of the theatre through movement, from strains of music to the energy of crowds. This swan-song to a decaying city landmark was awarded the Judges’ Special Award.
Another stand-out was Seven Versions of a Song, a collaboration between writer/performer, Duncan Molloy, and dancer, Cathy Walsh. Molloy was awarded best male performance of Unfringed for his vulnerable portrayal of a man fluently debating the joys and perils of falling in love, from first longings to insecurities. The story of a relationship is played out with both performers moving between dance and words.
Other more esoteric dance/performance works were The Melody Of Thinking, choreographed by Angie Smalis and Absence and Loss/Flat Pack by Nigel Rolfe. Seven Versions of a Song was produced by The LSA, a Limerick-based collective dedicated to telling stories “to remind everyone how great life is”. That was to the fore in its other piece at the festival, Storybook, which was both heartbreaking and life-affirming. It was narrated by Duncan Molloy to an original score, written and performed live by Luke McGuire. The most innovative aspect of the design was the live illustration by James Tuomey, drawing on acetate sheets on a projector. The audience audibly reacted to the illustrations, like a live-action comic book. This is the first time it has been staged as a full-length production, having been in a shorter format for Project Brand New at Project Arts Centre, Dublin.
This trend continued in Connected by Karl Quinn and Will Irvine, which was originally devised for the ‘Show in a Bag’ initiative at the Absolut Fringe in Dublin last year and has now been expanded. Joanne Beirne joked that “it confirms women’s worst fears about what men get up to on computers in offices”. But it is also asks whether you grow out of certain friendships and if place in life is about geography or maturity – albeit with a lot of obscene insults and references and clever computer game re-enactments.
Love Letters Straight From Your Heart, produced by Bristol-based company Uninvited Guests and Fuel, had its Irish premiere at the festival. This event is a combination of a wedding reception, a wake and a radio request show, and director, Paul Clarke, said the show aims to channel the verbal outpourings of emotion on occasions like those. Audience members can dedicate a song to someone they love, and these declarations make up the bulk of the show. The actors/DJs also make dedications, re-enact memories and call on the audience to get involved. If it sounds cheesy and sentimental, it is. But it’s also unique, entertaining and a strange confessional where you can share something personal. “In this room it is always Valentine’s Day,” and you can’t help but enjoy that concept.
There were several other admirable pieces, mostly tried and tested. Sorcha Kenny’s oral history/performance piece, My Life in Dresses; Branar Children’s Theatre presented An Shean Fhear Beag, and Carpet Theatre’s rambunctious satire about a shopping centre, The Blanch, was a hit. Local comedy troupe, Choke Comedy, provided comic relief in Never Mind the Improv, and another crowd pleaser was Killer Kabaret by Limerick’s Bottom Dog Theatre Company.
One of the best things about the festival was the young practitioners showing great promise, many of them graduates of Limerick Youth Theatre. The play commissioned for the Unfringed, with Pontoon Theatre, was Her Name was Pamela Mooney. It was devised and directed by Naomi O’Kelly, who created a show about teenage crushes based on fifty interviews. The idea was good, although the childlike theme in the staging let it down. Though charming, like many a teenage crush, it just fizzled out. Joanne Beirne praised O’Kelly’s “arresting, highly visual style”. Wildebeest Theatre Company’s A Different Animal, by Meadhbh Haicéid and directed by Ciarda Tobin, also took chances with their tale of changelings. Crissy O’Donovan won best female performance award for her portrayal of a vulnerable new mother. The zoomorphism and issues dealt with, such as alienation, were interesting, and Wildebeest, from Limerick, are a company to watch.
The Belltable funds the festival out of its overall allocation from the Arts Council, which has fallen by roughly a quarter over the last two years, Beirne says. “Last year we decided to cut all the tickets prices and put it on over five days, so people can feel that festival atmosphere where they can go from one thing to another. This year, all tickets were €10.”
Mary Coll, the founder of Unfringed and former artistic director of the Belltable said it started as a way to “unplug” shows from other fringe festivals. “Siobhán Colgan and I had the idea. We wanted to make it clear for potential audiences that the shows were going to be edgy, quirky, unconventional—different in every way to what we were presenting the rest of the year. It was quite successful. Reaction was very good. We thought it would probably appeal to a younger audience. In fact, it appealed to our regular audience because people who like theatre like theatre, and if you give them new types, they're mostly willing to come along and see it.” This particular audience trend has not changed.
“Looking back, it was one of the things that I was most proud of having achieved in my tenure at the Belltable,” Coll says. “If anything, I think that it might require - and I know it's the same statement we make about everything - more money. It would allow them to take more risks at a more international level. It isn’t as big as it has the potential to become.”
Rachael Finucane is a freelance journalist based in Limerick.