Belfast Festival at Queen's

New director Richard Wakely on this year's festival highlights and his hopes for the future

‘They were formative years, undoubtedly.’

Richard Wakely is talking about his time as a geography student at Queen’s University, Belfast when he helped manage the Fringe Festival run by the Students’ Union, and worked in the box office at the main Queen’s Festival.

The Fringe Festival is gone now, and it’s been a considerable period since acts of the stature of the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Hallé Orchestra and Van Morrison – all of whom Wakely remembers from his student days – regularly graced the Belfast Festival programme.

Wakely is the new director of the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, and harks back fondly to that golden period as seminal to his own personal development. ‘I was very lucky to have worked under wonderful people like Michael Barnes, Betty Craig, and Robert Agnew,’ he remembers.

‘In many ways they were way ahead of their time. Betty Craig for me was the best arts administrator on the island, so I was able to observe and learn from her. The festival in those days was the only place to see international acts. It was a bright candle in the very long, dark night of The Troubles.’

Although Wakely carefully avoids being drawn on the subject, it’s undeniable that the international element of the Belfast Festival has waned in recent times. Fewer prestigious companies are visiting, and efforts to bolster continuity and integrity of programming were blighted by the premature departure of former director Mark Prescott, who was succeeded by Shan McKenna as director for the 2012 festival.

Wakely is, however, bullish about the future, and insists that the Belfast Festival must re-strengthen its international focus to justify its existence in an increasingly competitive global arts marketplace. That marketplace has, says Wakely, changed radically in recent years.

‘People go to Stratford to see the RSC now. They go to London. Audiences are much more mobile, the price of travel has come right down. You can get on a budget flight and go to Manchester to see The Hallé. People access art online now, too.’

Wakely’s response to the vastly increased amount of cultural tourism – prohibitively expensive 40 years ago for Northern Irish audiences – is to cast his net much wider than the UK mainland when looking for the acts and individuals he hopes will make the Belfast Festival special.

‘I think our role is to bring work here to Northern Ireland that is unique, that hasn’t necessarily been seen by our audiences, and that they can’t access in other ways,' he says.

'We need to look beyond the UK to countries with other theatrical, musical and choreographic traditions. The Belfast Festival is our major international event, and it needs to re-shape and re-energise itself as such.’

As evidence that the process of re-shaping has begun already, Wakely cites several internationally reputed artists whom he feels are bringing something new and distinctive to this year’s festival.

‘The great Roger Bernat is coming over, his first time to Ireland from Catalonia,’ he enthuses. ‘He’s bringing a theatrical piece called Pending Vote, with no actors and no set. It’s completely driven by the audience. Northern Ireland is an evolving democracy, we’ve got questions about the benefits of democracy, and the contradictions of democracy. This is a piece that explores that.'

‘And Sol Picó is coming,’ Wakely continues, ‘with the UK premiere of a dance piece called Memòries d’una Puça. This is about the austerity measures and their impact in Spain, but it clearly has resonances around Europe.’

Internationalism, it transpires, is not the only item on Wakely’s agenda. ‘This year, more than any other year, we are taking work out right around the city, because we believe in access. We’re going to send the great Ars Nova Copenhagen, one of Europe’s top choral ensembles, up the Antrim Road to St Gerard’s Church, a very nice venue and a good acoustic.

‘And my colleagues in City Hall don’t remember the last time there was an event in Belmont Park in east Belfast. We’re doing one this year, Tumble Circus’s Damn The Circus, for families, which has just opened at Dublin Theatre Festival to wonderful reviews. We’re taking it to Falls Park in west Belfast too.’

Wakely is particularly excited about the multi-disciplinary Wish project, one of a number of free events in this year’s festival. ‘We have satellite technology mapping out an 11 acre site in the Titanic Quarter, with our inaugural artist-in-residence Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada. He’ll be working with local people around the city to make the biggest land-art portrait ever created in these islands.’

Access is, Wakely argues, also about making festival events as affordable as possible. ‘95% of our tickets this year are £16 and under. So Bullet Catch, which has been touring the world to amazing reviews, ends its world tour here at the Lyric Theatre, at £16 top ticket. International theatre accessible on your doorstep, at competitive prices.’

Wakely will, no doubt, continue working on prices. With tickets for the flagship concert of the Spanish tenor José Carreras at this year's festival ranging from £75 to an eye-watering £130, he will certainly need to.

Wakely returns to his native Belfast after 18 years spent working in theatre and dance in London, and a spell as managing director at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. He arrived in April, leaving precious little time – ‘eight or nine weeks’, he estimates – to set up this year’s festival. ‘I pulled in a lot of favours,’ he smiles. 'A lot.’

He is, in the circumstances, keen to emphasise that the 2013 Belfast Festival is merely a beginning. 'We are responsible for blowing the windows of Northern Ireland open, and letting in new ideas, new creative practices,' he claims.

‘What we’ve tried to do this year, in the small amount of time we’ve had to put the festival together, is signal our intentions for the future. It’s not a complete picture. It’ll take several years.'

There are unquestionably areas that require Wakely's urgent attention. The classical music programme in this year's festival is bland and unimaginative. Jazz barely gets a look-in, and the comedy strand is omitted altogether.

Time alone will tell whether Wakely and his new team can make a real difference in these and other areas, and re-establish the Belfast Festival at Queen's as an event of truly international reach and significance.

The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's runs from October 17 – 27.