Galway International Arts Festival reviews including Sonya Kelly, Donal Ryan, Enda Walsh and Sam Shepard

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The Galway International Arts Festival, the biggest event of its kind in Ireland, has returned to a full schedule after two years of pandemic disruption and is once again delivering an ambitious programme. Here are four of the challenging and entertaining theatrical highlights.

not The last return (Mick Lally Theatre; until July 23), Sonya Kelly stands out as a major Irish playwright. His previous plays have been very impressive, but this new work for Druid takes his career to the next level by skillfully combining political commentary and comedy.

The play takes place at a box office in an unspecified European city and concerns people queuing to return to a sold-out production of an Oppenheimer opera. Oppenheimer seems like an obscure composer, but he was actually one of the inventors of the atomic bomb.

Umbrella Woman (Fiona Bell) arrives and she is directed by the useless Ticket Person (Anna Healy) to join the queue for returns. There she finds Newspaper Man (Bosco Hogan) who is on the front line. They are joined by Woman in Pink (Naima Swaleh), originally from Somalia, then by Military Man (Fionn Ó Loingsigh), an American soldier.

Everyone in line has a compelling reason to attend this opera. Newspaper Man’s professorship depends on it. The Umbrella Lady’s social outlook at work hangs in the balance.

Military Man suffers from post-war stress disorder and was directed to the opera for medical reasons. And we don’t initially know the story of Woman in Pink because she doesn’t speak English and communicates through a translator app on her phone.

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Naima Swaleh as Woman In Pink in Sonya Kelly’s Druid’s The Last Return at the Mick Lally Theater as part of GIAF. Photo of Ste Murray

Naima Swaleh as Woman In Pink in Sonya Kelly’s Druid’s The Last Return at the Mick Lally Theater as part of GIAF. Photo of Ste Murray

The play says some wildly clever things about European history; As refugees from Africa and the Middle East arrive at our borders, they also arrive on our scenes. Good plays teach you something very deep; this one teaches that forming an orderly queue is an absolute privilege. And while the savagery on display is exaggerated, it’s not entirely divorced from reality.

The action may be absurd in style, but it’s still familiar, and Kelly’s comic vision is informed by principled anger. Director Sara Joyce makes a series of bold decisions, all of which pay off. Performance could not be improved.

The intimate Mick Lally Theater is done up in a formal proscenium style, with a curtain, and Francis O’Connor’s sleek decor is like a mini version of something you’d find in a large, upscale performance hall .

The costumes (O’Connor again) are bright and colorful, full of both comedy and character. Gráinne Coughlan’s makeup deserves a special mention for Ticket Person’s terrifying blue eyeshadow and an emphatic nail polish range.

This new play could only be theatre. He absolutely needs the medium to tell his story. I predict it will be a huge hit and people will line up for returns, hoping not to kill each other in the process.

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Donald Ryan’s Novel Of a low and calm sea (Théâtre de l’Île-des-Sœurs; until July 24) gets a sensitive adaptation in this Decadent Theater and Galway Arts Center production. We meet John, an amoral accountant and real estate speculator, nearing the end of his life, played by Lorcan Cranitch in thoughtful rogue mode.

We meet Farouk, a doctor living in Ireland, a refugee from a Syrian region invaded by Islamic fundamentalists – Aosaf Afzal expresses with emotion the suffering of this desperate husband and father. Darragh O’Toole plays the young bus driver Lampy and skillfully captures the uncontrollable temper of a runaway 20-year-old.

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Lorcan Cranitch as John in


Lorcan Cranitch as John in ‘Of a Low and Quiet Sea’. Photo by Emilija Jefremova

Lorcan Cranitch as John in ‘Of a Low and Quiet Sea’. Photo by Emilija Jefremova

Maeve Fitzgerald brings a clear intelligence to the benevolent role of Florence, Lampy’s mother. She is a woman who lives a calm and controlled life to take care of her son and his widowed father. Andrew Flynn’s staging finds a delicacy as well as a power in each of the characters.

Penetrating insight

The adaptation is credited to the cast, director, and writer, and comes as a series of monologues, with each character holding the stage alone for periods of time. Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting design and Carl Kennedy’s sound design create mood shifts that smoothly tie the pieces together, as they unfold across bare wooden planks in front of Ger’s abstract backdrop. Sweeney.

Ryan’s writing, at its best, is full of penetrating insight. Florence’s story seems a little thinner than the three men’s, partly because it holds back the secret that ties the stories together.

However, this lack of character connection for most of the series is somewhat frustrating. When the pieces of the puzzle finally fall into place at the end, it seems too late. It worked better in the book; the form of a novel can be much more diffuse. But this structural deficit means that Ryan’s story, for all its ideas and appeal, remains a stage romance rather than a play.

middle room (Columban Hall; through July 24) is the ninth installment in the Galway International Arts Festival series of theatrical installations Rooms, written by Enda Walsh and designed by GIAF Artistic Director Paul Fahy. Each year, a 15-minute audio piece was created, located in any room. This superbly dark new episode, starring Rory Nolan, sends shivers down your spine.

A small audience of four enter, instructed to sit wherever we see fit. I take a hard chair, someone else sits on the bed. The first thing that hits you is the smell; it’s stuffy, airless, dusty and masculine. And is it a slight smell of cat urine? “What is that awful smell?” asks dad. “It’s us,” comes the response.

The room is a monumental mess, heaps of clothes; an overflowing chest of drawers; antique mahogany furniture, inherited from a grander location, is offset by an inexpensive pine bed.

The voiceover is a recording made by adult child Richard, who lives a bitter life caring for his elderly father. Richard scrutinizes the blinds, observing with contempt the comings and goings of the inhabitants of the impasse. An old reel-to-reel recording machine sits next to a pile of tangled audio tapes. Stacks of CDs, LPs and VHS tapes testify to Richard’s undeveloped interests and talents.

“My God! my life!” he laments. A local cat roams; Dad takes a liking to it and calls it Lucky. Richard holds the cat back for a while, bribing it with fish sticks, until a woman knocks on the door with her three-year-old son and a poster for a missing cat.

There are echoes of Samuel Beckett here but without the compassion. A Pinterest-esque menace dominates a play about how an underused brain can become malignant. Cul-de-sacs, desirable low-traffic suburban developments, can be sinister trapping spots.

Walsh skillfully plays with terror and lets the audience envision very poor results. The terrible things don’t happen in the story, but they do happen in the public imagination. It’s a beautiful dramatic manipulation, and Walsh, Fahy and Nolan created a memorable slice of darkness amid all the summer festival cheer.

We left the sickening atmosphere of that dark middle room happy to escape into the bright air of Galway.

Unpredictable violence

true west (Town Hall Theatre; through July 23)Sam Shepard’s play about brotherly unlove first premiered in San Francisco in 1980. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company had major early success with a production in 1982, and is now tackling this classic American keystone for a new generation.

Austin guards his mother’s suburban home near Los Angeles while working on his screenplay. His brother Lee shows up, a desert dropout who dabbles in burglary and often explodes into unpredictable violence.

Austin has a meeting with his producer, and somehow Lee manages to squeeze his way into the dynamic, pitching his own idea for a movie in the desert, which the producer loves. Lee is a violent bully and his brother is afraid of him, until failure breeds recklessness in the weaker brother and things spiral out of control.

Fight director Ned Mochel choreographs these highly compelling vicious outbursts that contain the harrowing scrabbling of little boys as well as the chilling lethal power of grown men.

The cast of African American actors gives new perspective to the brothers’ parallel urges to conform or abandon societal expectations, and these new complexities are conveyed in terrific performances: Namir Smallwood is a terrifying, flinty Lee; Jon Michael Hill’s soothing Austin is a touching portrayal of a man who appeals to people at their wit’s end; Randall Arney (who also directs) is pure sweetness as a producer. Ora Jones has a wonderful cameo as a distracted mother who returns to her dying houseplants.

Todd Rosenthal’s scenography is dominated by yellow, which first seems cheerful, then mischievous. Sound designer Richard Woodbury creates an oppressive soundscape that includes howling coyotes, maddening crickets, and the thud of a typewriter.

This dense game passes over you like a whirlwind, giving you food for thought. Civilization is no guarantee, no matter how hard we try to conform; family life can be a veritable minefield; we are all just a few crazy events away from chaos.

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