Belfast Prepares for Eastside Arts Festival

Jim Meredith picks out some choice highlights in music, theatre, literature and film as east Belfast prepares to party

The Eastside Arts Festival returns for its third annual programme of events from August 21 – 25, and will showcase a varied arts programme guaranteed to have something of interest for the citizens of Belfast and beyond.

Featuring music, theatre, film, art, talks and more, the festival has quickly become an essential part of Belfast’s arts calendar. With the closure of Orangefield High School, this year’s festival is celebrating some of the creative talent to emerge from the school during its history, including its most famous ex-pupil, Van Morrison, who will play three intimate concerts in the school assembly hall.

Before he left Orangefield, a 14-year-old Morrison and a couple of friends performed at a school concert billed as Midnight Special. In what is sure to be a unique occasion, Morrison is returning to his former school for the first time to play. The August 22 and 24 concerts are reserved for an audience consisting of former pupils and teachers of the school, whilst the August 23 gig is open to the general public.

The remainder of the music thread has plenty to offer, however, with Kaz Hawkins opening the festival on August 21, Irish folk artist Dónal Lunny performing on August 22 and an Orangefield Blues Nighr featuring Eric Bell on August 25.

Another famous alumnus of Orangefield was the poet and playwright Stewart Parker, author of Spokesong, Northern Star and Heavenly Bodies amongst others. Festival goers will be given a sneak preview of the Lyric Theatre’s new production of Parker’s final, and arguably most powerful, play Pentecost, at the Strand Arts Centre on August 23.

A rehearsed reading by the cast who will be performing the play when it opens in the Lyric in September, Pentecost – set during the Loyalist Workers Council’s strike in 1974 – was written in 1987, a year before Parker’s untimely death from cancer at the age of 47.

The Strand Arts Centre will also be screening Stewart Parker: Playwright, a 1984 documentary made by BBC Northern Ireland, as well as the rarely seen Iris in the Traffic, Ruby in the Rain, Parker’s 1981 BBC Play for Today, which dealt with the social and political issues in Belfast communities. The play features an evocative soundtrack by Stiff Little Fingers, and co-stars the band's lead singer, Jake Burns, alongside actress Frances Tomelty.

Both screenings take place on August 24, and are preceded by Stewart Parker’s High Pop, hosted by Radio Ulster presenter and writer, Stuart Baillie, who will be spinning some popular tunes from the 1970s as well as reading from Parker’s perceptive and often humorous reviews of them from his days as an Irish Times columnist.

Another famous playwright, and ex-Orangefield Girls’ School pupil, Marie Jones, will be in conversation with east Belfast writer and actor Dan Gordon at Orangefield High School on August 25. The internationally acclaimed writer of plays such as Stones in His Pockets and A Night in November will also be performing scenes from her plays with two leading local actors.

Poetry lovers can look forward to My Mother-City: Poetry & Prose with Gerald Dawe on August 22 at Orangefield High School. The acclaimed poet and essayist, currently Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, will be sharing his poems and writings about Belfast and schooldays in the 60s, when he was a pupil at Orangefield.

The author of eight collections of poetry, as well as numerous collections of essays, Dawes will also be in conversation with Damian Smyth, fellow poet and director of literature at the Arts Council for Northern Ireland.

Another former Orangefield pupil, Brian Keenan, whose An Evil Cradling – an account of the four and a half years he spent as a hostage in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980s – became a bestseller and winner of the 1991 Irish Times Literature Prize for Non-fiction, will be in conversation with novelist (and east Belfast resident) Glenn Patterson on August 23 at the Strand Arts Centre.

Keenan is also the subject of the movie Blind Flight, a 2003 film about his hostage ordeal. Starring acclaimed actor Ian Hart as Keenan, the movie will screen at the same venue prior to his talk.

Patterson pops up again on August 24 at the Strand Arts Centre in his guise as screenwriter to introduce Good Vibrations, the 2013 film he co-wrote with Colin Carberry. The film – already a cult classic in film and music circles – tells the story of Belfast punk legend Terri Hooley and the rise and fall of his Good Vibrations record shop and label during the darkest days of the troubles.

With a fantastic performance from Richard Dormer as Hooley, a cracking soundtrack collated by David Holmes, and fine direction by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, this is a must see.

Another special movie event is a screening of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, showing in partnership with LoveMusicHateRacism and Strand Arts Centre on August 25.

Earlier this year it was reported that then Education Secretary Michael Gove was planning to drop classics of American literature, including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, from the English literature GCSE syllabus. This announcement sparked a huge debate about the importance of these books and the impact and educational value they have on children.

The book and film tell the story of Finch, the middle-aged lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white girl in the Deep South. The action unfolds through the eyes of his perceptive six-year-old daughter Scout, and explores issues of race, class and the loss of innocence. This classic movie, which stars Gregory Peck, won six awards, including Academy and Golden Globes.

Eastside Arts Festival runs in various venues from August 21 – 25. View the full festival programme.