Diary of a Festival Goer

David Lewis gives his verdict on the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival 2005

Until this year, I admit I was a Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival virgin. I’d heard a lot about it. How once you start you just can’t get enough. How you find yourself doing it in the strangest of places. How it’s edgy and underground, yet offers quality shows and moving experiences. I was dubious. No arts festival could be that good. But, first time for everything, I took the plunge…  Now the last note has been sung, the last turn tumbled, the last line declaimed and pint quaffed, did it make the earth move?

My festival experience begins on a cold week night with Silent Shakespeare in St George’s on High Street. An imposing venue, the oldest Church of Ireland church in Belfast, showing some of the oldest films in existence. I’m not hopeful. Surely ‘silent Shakespeare’ is an anachronism? Rendering the great bard mute? Pah.

But the seven films, including the very first Shakespeare film King John, made in 1899, soon dispel this notion. The score by Laura Rossi, played by the Fourth Dimension String Quartet, compliments the films perfectly, lending atmosphere without being over-powering.

In its infancy film was regarded as a lowbrow medium and the budding film industry tried to give it gravitas by tackling stage plays. It’s interesting to imagine what early cinema goers would have made of these films. The special effects which nowadays raise a smile would in the early 1900s have raised a gasp. Ariel vanishing in The Tempest, Bottom being given the head of an ass, would have seemed wonderful trickery.

Watching the films now gives one an understanding of how film made things, which had previously only existed in the imagination, real, able to be seen with the viewer’s own eyes. There is added poignancy watching The Tempest, the cast of which are unknown – pioneering actors and actresses, long dead long forgotten, trapped in their world of celluloid.

The next night it’s Kid Carpet. Upstairs at White’s Tavern is packed to the rafters, as the musician/singer/showman lays out his tools of the trade – tiny battery-powered Casio keyboards, musical toys and gaudy kiddie guitars, which flash, beep, bleep and roar.

It’s a soundman’s worse nightmare, as the instruments are swapped around at breathtaking pace, merging with samples, breaks and vocals from the Kid. In amongst the tricks and gimmickry are some fine tunes. A 30 second snatch of a song, culled from a radio advert for a carpet firm in Bristol, stands out. And when the Kid delivers his anthemic version of Van Halen’s Jump White’s erupts. It’s a difficult trick being childish and clever simultaneously but Kid Carpet just about pulls it off.

I’m finding out that the joy of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is that it’s big enough to attract quality acts, small enough to make the festival goer feel part of the whole shebang. It’s easy to meet the performers after gigs. Somehow I end up in the John Hewitt, the official festival boozer, drinking with Kid Carpet. Explosion Soundsystem, a Belfast based reggae collective, are on the decks. Before chucking out time, they get everyone dancing and desperately seeking more parties.

Saturday night is an event I’ve been looking forward to since the festival launch back in April – the world premiere of Cold Comfort, Owen McCafferty’s latest play at the Old Museum Arts Centre. It tells the story of Kevin Toner, played by Patrick O’Kane, who returns to Belfast from London to have a final ‘conversation’ with his recently deceased father. The imaginary chat soon extends to his mother, ex wife and son. The play is saturated in drink and the demons that arise from it. A lonesome figure, O’Kane gargles from a half bottle of whisky throughout and gives an acting master class. His performance is so natural and unstagey, so true to life that the audience can’t help but think of the Kevin Toners they have known.

McCafferty is the star of the moment, having won every playwriting award going in the last year, and it’s easy to see why. There are moments in the play’s denouement where the hair stands on the neck, tears prick the eyes, and the weight of emotion from the stage stops the breath in the lungs. A mimed hug, a moment of utter stillness, is one of the most affecting things I have ever seen in the theatre.

So that was is it, I thought, festival over, ended on a high. But next evening, I find myself passing a mini big top opposite McHugh’s bar. What’s going on? The final show of Hard Hats & Latte, a Belfast Community Circus School production. Sure why not…

The show is awkward to categorise, with elements of circus, theatre, revue and dance. Sheltered from the worst ravages of the wind, the performers give it their all. It’s the first time the school has put on an ensemble show and is a good advertisement for what it has to offer. And that really is it.

I visited the Edinburgh festival last summer after a long absence and hated it. The Fringe there has become a monstrous creature, packed full of rubbish, over-priced shows. The atmosphere is relentlessly cheerful, naff and mercenary.

In contrast, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival is magical, with intriguing programming, a fun underground vibe and some world class performances. Everything I had been told was true. Belfast should recognise and celebrate the fact that it has a gem in its midst. Long may the Cathedral Arts Quarter Festival continue to shine.