The best of times for the Cork Midsummer Festival
It was the worst of times, according to composer John O’Brien; “the worst part of the pandemic.” When Lorraine Maye, director of the Cork Midsummer Festival 2022, proposed a commission, things changed: “it paid me to live and work when no other work was available, and that’s the kind of thing What is Lorraine doing? She is brilliant at finding potential, supporting artists, discovering ideas and providing the organizational groundwork that gives us a chance.
It’s the best of times for Lorraine Maye. Although director of the festival since 2017, she retains a sense of wonder now exacerbated by the lifting of the Covid restrictions: which, she says, “means that we have no complex this year! Sitting in the conference room of the Civic Trust House from which the festival is run, she stretches her arms wide and high as if to embrace all the rejoicing to come.
This airy expansion expresses Maye’s plea for the range of creativity and partnerships brought together again under the festival’s wallless tent.
“There is no hierarchy in our programming,” she says. “And our focus doesn’t stop at Cork. We see a lot of emerging artists and with them we build networks and exchanges. We also have international recognition, now greater than ever, which opens up pathways to other communities, other connections.
As she speaks, Maye’s duration expands to express the dimensions and impact of Luke Jerram’s Gaia, an insubstantial globe 7m in diameter, invoking the mythical Greek mother earth of its title.
For the duration of the festival, it will be suspended from the roof beams of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh as if in space, which may well be the case as it is designed from the striking NASA images of 1968. Not by David Bowie, but a soundtrack by BAFTA winner Dan Jones. In its beauty and originality it suggests an excitement, almost a metaphor for this whole summer solstice season, uniting as it does a partnership with Belvelly Castle, a mighty cathedral and an international work of art from environmental and political significance.
New and resurrected partnerships are crucial to the adventure of any festival and this year Maye navigates institutions such as the Glucksman Gallery and UCC’s Connolly Building, or The Good Room, The Glasshouse, Marina Market Warehouse, the Cork Circus Factory and the MTU College of Art. and Design. Its encompassing arms seem to engage the opportunities of a rediscovered city alert to footsteps.
She lists these collaborations with an enthusiasm that does not wane as the compulsory credits are recognized: the Arts Council’s “very supportive” grant has increased this year to €450,000, a sum which covers “everything what we wanted to do”.
Failte Ireland’s contribution up 40%, Cork City Council’s help through project grants and scholarships and in particular through the Parks Department to find what Pat Kiernan of Corcadorca calls ” performable spaces.
“We were always planning work around the festival,” says Kiernan. “It gives us better engagement with local audiences and brings people into the city.”
The space director Kiernan wanted for his company’s production of Guests of the Nation required such an expensive crew that the initial project had to be scaled down and adjusted to Cork Opera House and Triskel Arts Center and the intermediate streets, which would indeed have been familiar to Frank O’Connor.
Its famous story is the inspiration rather than the material for a screenplay by Kevin Barry with sound by Mel Mercier in a reflection on wars, alarms and controversies.
Like Corcadorca but as a venue, Everyman is one of the festival’s loyal collaborators and its artistic director Sophie Motley sees the event as a powerful conduit to a cultural community with which, she says, Cork shows its best and most true colors.
Currently celebrating its 125th anniversary as a theatre, Everyman engages with the festival as a showpiece for exciting new works. “This theater has this fantastic vocal quality that belongs to an old building designed for live music,” she points out, and this year the music will be really, really live, with the Battersea Arts Center and BAC’s Frankenstein Beatbox Academy promising to unwind a claw hammer through the works of Mary Shelley, Pachelbel and Prodigy.
Intended to “vibrate the local scene”, this event should also help to create new audiences by inviting young people to participate in the workshops of the BAC Beatbox Academy. Not only does Motley agree that Lorraine Maye is heavily concerned with artists, but she’s “also very smart” in bringing another living partnership for Everyman through electronic composer Liam Farrell, known to so many Dr L, whose creative residency at the Center Culturel Irlandais in Paris results in a combination of embassies promoting Midsummer hip-hop concerts by Irish, French and Senegalese artists.
When Anthony Burgess wrote an introduction to James Joyce “for the ordinary reader” in 1965, his chosen title was Here Comes Everybody. So here comes Ulysses with everyone from Branar, the Galway children’s theater company that works here with paper artist Maeve Clancy. The production reunites Anu during his first visit to Cork with Landmark Productions and the Museum of Literature Ireland.
Meanwhile, Cork’s leading youth theater company Graffiti bring John McCarthy’s musical Humans: A Robot to their Blackpool venue as he moves to a bigger stage for his new play Whale at the Cork Opera House.
Lorraine Maye believes that the festival must operate in a context that offers a support system of established networks and an accomplished core team. “All of this knowledge and expertise is available to our participants.” With 13 presentations listed as world firsts, John O’Brien’s assertion that investing in artists is Maye’s number one concern seems grounded in seasoned cooperation, especially when the city itself becomes less of a back -plan and more a gallery as for the installations selected through the Pluck Project Connection Diagram.
The Nightwalks led by Midsummer’s Artist-in-Residence, Peter Power, will share the cityscape with Darren O’Donnell’s Mammalian Diving Reflex company from Canada who will lead Nightwalks With Teenagers.
With so much going on in the world since planning for the 2022 festival took shape, Maye’s team had to grapple with the question of how to reinvigorate the necessary critical mass of live audiences. “It’s a contemporary program. We don’t set themes, but themes emerge where artists reflect on what is essential now, in the moment.
There is also a look back with, for example, Anu’s second title The Wakefires, a questioning directed by Louise Lowe on the submerged experiences of women in revolutionary Ireland until the Civil War. This interrogation could be seen as a counterweight to John O’Brien’s treatment of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. Commissioned with funding from the Canada Council, Maye thinks it’s the perfect piece for this moment.
“We have been living in this duality for two years. We want to reflect where we are, we want to be together and we want to celebrate. Something like this work by John really captures all of that.
It’s not entirely the King James version. O’Brien’s script uses translations that he felt made the most sense. “I thought a lot about Ecclesiastes with this guy writing in a desert 3,000 years ago, finding the philosophical ideas there and how modern some of the thinking is.
“It shows that we can live through both our ancestors and our descendants and there’s a sense of anarchy and nihilism but also a lot of fun – it’s like someone smuggled Ecclesiastes into the Bible.” And yes, he says, with Derbhle Crotty and The Carducci Quartet it’s a high-end production but then again, “that’s what Lorraine is looking for, to do stuff that’s here and now with the best people in the world and propose a life that is also beyond the festival itself.
Midsummer is not only looking to the future by continuing its new residencies of works at the Cork Arts Theatre, it is also introducing a development artist exchange with the Bristol Old Vic, Mayk and Everyman under the title Tales of Two Cities. But Lottaine Maye also wanted a parade, and she has one.
The summer solstice, she says, has a mythical resonance, still relevant to the summer solstice. Working with Cork Community Arts Link, its aim is to create a new civic moment in the city. The festival, she thinks, “has to fit into bigger things”.
The Cork Midsummer Festival 2022 runs from June 15-26.