2011: A Year in the Arts

Fionola Meredith looks back on a successful funding campaign and a whole host of stand out events

The greatest challenge in writing a review of the year just passed is in remembering what happened, where and when. Such is the pace of modern life, I barely recall what I saw or read last week, let alone 12 months ago.

But once you start piecing it all together, it's clear that 2011 was a surprisingly healthy year for the arts in Northern Ireland, in spite of the threat of funding cuts. Perhaps there's some truth in the idea that creative energy flourishes better on a sparse diet.

But there's no doubt the arts need to safeguard the limited funding they do have, and 2011 began with a rousing and enthusiastically supported campaign. 'I Love the Arts' urged decision-makers to resist cutting the arts sector to shreds.

Coming in the formerly dull slough of days following Christmas and New Year, the Out to Lunch Festival in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter offered its usual delightfully idiosyncratic mishmash of music, talk and art. This great little festival goes from strength to strength. It's a vibrant kick-start to the year, and an early benchmark for all that follows.

After that, Northern Ireland Opera brought Puccini's Tosca to Derry~Londonderry. The unusual performances involved the singers, orchestra and audience moving between three venues – St Columb's Cathedral, the Guildhall and St Columb's Hall. There were also taster sessions in the Richmond Centre, with shoppers lured along to the main event by tempting arias. What could be better than a burst of Italian opera while you're buying beans and a loaf of bread?

Spring 2011 also saw the long-awaited reopening of the rebuilt and reimagined Lyric Theatre, with a performance of Arthur Miller's allegorical play, The Crucible. Though some questions were raised about the choice of Miller's dark meditation on authority and hysteria as an opener for the new building, the production itself was spell-binding.

The Lyric played another blinder with Brendan at the Chelsea. Adrian Dunbar, in the title role, perfectly channelled Brendan Behan's petulant, charming, infuriating spirit. And the building itself is a marvel, somewhere Belfast can be proud of, full of space and light.

Big Telly's production of Spike Milligan's crazy farce, Puckoon – 'a simple tale of Irish folk bordering on the ridiculous' – which played in Belfast, Newry and Newtownabbey before heading off to London was an unexpected gem, all swirling music and wit and sheer theatrical anarchy.

At the opposite extreme – but no less successful for it – was the Wireless Mystery Theatre players' performance of Carlo Gebler's radio play, Charles and Mary, in the intimate setting of No Alibis bookstore on Botanic Avenue in Belfast.

This was a tale of alcoholism, mental illness, and murder enacted as though live on radio, with all kinds of canny sound effects and tricks. Fascinating though it was to watch, I found myself listening with my eyes closed, allowing the story to expand and unfold in my mind. WMT finished the year off with a performance of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

This year's Belfast Film Festival brought an extraordinarily wide range of talent to Belfast, but some of my favourite parts were the home-made offerings, like Raiders of the Lost Story Arc, Kabosh's play based on conversations between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan about the first and best Indiana Jones film. It managed to be obscure, smart and engaging all at once. No mean feat.

The music scene this year has been dominated by the behemoth of the MTV awards, but for me, the real success was Belfast Music Week, the line-up of shows around the awards. The Divine Comedy, Ash and the Undertones gig at the Ulster Hall, set up as a fund-raiser for the Alzheimer's Society, was pure pleasure. When Neil Hannon came back on stage to sing 'Oh Yeah' with Ash, looking like a dapper little granddad among the big rough indie boys, it did your heart good.

Surprising revelation of this summer? Our local music festivals are actually pretty good. The best moment was at Sunflowerfest, near Hillsborough, watching my teenage daughter and her friend dancing to Cashier No. 9's 'Goldstar' in the twilight.

Wandering through the visual arts galleries this year has brought me into contact with art that has moved me, excited me, troubled me and bored me. That's as it should be. But one show that stood out was photographer Adam Patterson's exhibition at Belfast Exposed, Men and My Daddy. It was a curious look at individual lives within a loyalist area in North Belfast.

Transcending, or at least side-stepping, the usual hackneyed Troubles imagery, these photographs probed and questioned without exploiting. And some of them were beautiful.

Culture Night, in September, brought a sense of carnival to the streets of the Cathedral Quarter and beyond. Lower Garfield Street was transformed into a Spanish street for the evening, with Northern Ireland Opera providing snippets from The Barber of Seville in the Tivoli barber's shop, and Flamenco dancing in the Deer's Head. Another fabulous idea from the Forum for Alternative Belfast, a not-for-profit group that works to make Belfast a better place to live.

For me 2011 has been a year of re-reading favourite Irish writers: John McGahern, William Trevor, Molly Keane. But one book I look forward to reading over Christmas is Leontia Flynn's new poetry collection, Profit and Loss, launched in Belfast earlier this month. Flynn's voice is wry, perceptive, poignant, witty. This will be a treat to savour.

And so that was 2011 in the arts – or at least my 2011: the plays, art, music and more that I have connected with this year. But a final word must go to some of the venues that have hosted so many of the year's best events.

The Black Box in Hill Street is a gem of a place: anything can happen there, and it frequently does. The Queens Film Theatre is another treasure. I've spent many pleasurable evenings this year in its comfy (Screen 1) or slightly less comfy (Screen 2) seats, as I have done since I was a child going there with my granny, when it felt like a haven of sophistication, a place where other worlds open up.

And a great new venue, just opened this year, is the Galley Cafe on the barge moored at Lanyon Quay in Belfast city centre. Home-made limoncello, hand-crafted pork pies and good music. I tell you, there's hope for this country yet. Happy New Year!