With the post-Covid picture beginning to make itself clear for all sections of Irish society, it was inevitable that Cork’s arts community would enter a stage of dusting itself down and looking around to survey what’s going on, and where to start building again - and no better platform than Cork Midsummer Festival, the annual two-week season of culture events in venues around town, featuring partnerships with a wide array of arts and community groups, with which to do it.
Exploring traditional and unorthodox methods of reaching people in Cork City and County, the 2022 edition is the festival’s first in-person experience in two years.
From using the lobby of Civic Trust House on Popes’ Quay to host a theatrical pop-up paper version of Ulysses for kids; to venturing into Shandon’s St Anne’s Park to celebrate the city’s LGBT* community, to the return of live Art Gift performances to peoples’ doorsteps, Midsummer this year is focused on putting a solid foundation under the city’s arts scene as life picks up in earnest, says festival director Lorraine Maye.
“The overarching feeling of it all is just excitement, getting back to a fully live festival. This is our first fully live festival in three years, so ourselves, the partners, the artists - while we did some brilliant things over the pandemic, we've learned a lot about how we might reach communities in different ways, for planning a festival that's going to take over the whole city.
“There are events at warehouses, on our brilliant stages, we have events down in Cobh, at the city's parks, it'll literally be coming at people from every corner - and that's, that's a very, very exciting thing to be looking forward to.”
There's a huge diversity of events and programming at play throughout the festival (see panel), ranging from headline music artists like Sharon van Etten at Cork Opera House and Tolu Makay at the Kino; to participatory experiences, like the untrained, improvised choir that will converge on Fitzgerald’s Park for ‘Sing Your Failures’, or the young people that will take theatregoers on a trip through town on their terms in ‘Nightwalks with Teenagers’. Maye discusses how it’s been to see these programming threads come together.
“In a way, it's been very emotional watching everything coming together. We've had these couple of years where we didn't have this liveness, this live element of the festival.
“There's this idea, again, of seeing the tickets selling, seeing the work coming together, imagining us all being together, you know, over the ten days. It just makes me really happy. It's been a really, really joyous experience. I think that's what the festival will be, you know, I think it'll be a big adventure, across the city, with lots of joy and electricity and togetherness. I guess that's what festivals are all about.”
One major part of the festival’s remit is inclusion, and it seemingly doesn’t get any more ambitious than the idea of a version of James Joyce’s Ulysses for kids. Condensing the sprawling, bawdy chronicle of a drunken day out in Dublin to a kid-friendly show is no mean feat, but Branar Theatre and performer Helen Gregg have found a way to combine live performance, score and paper design to bring ‘Ulysses 2.2: You’ll See’ to life for in-person and online audiences on the seminal work’s 100th anniversary, ahead of Bloomsday.
Director Marc MacLochlainn talks about how all involved went about a seemingly-Herculean task.
“I felt like I was doing Ulysses for the Leaving Cert. There was a lot of study of the text and figuring out a way into it that would be suitable, I suppose, for that age group. We looked at it from the point of view of what the story is going to celebrate - we looked at how Joyce celebrates everybody democratically in Dublin, every character has a right to be on the same page as the other, nobody's the lead character, although we follow the two guys more than everyone else, but at any stage, any character can take charge of the of the story.
“The thing that we used was the (antagonist) Blazes Boylan idea, he's the reason why (protagonist Leopold) Bloom stays out all day, because he knows his wife's going to have an affair. So we were going, "we can't really get into that". So what we did was, we kind of made it that Bloom is jealous of Boylan, and claims him as his nemesis. We brought it to a level that children can relate to. For adults as well, it is us basically going through the whole book, and you'll know what happens in Ulysses after seeing this 30 minute piece of work, so it might lead them back to have a look at it.”
There's a tremendous mix of media happening throughout, designed in a way that engages live audiences and the online camera alike - perfect for the festival’s post-Covid mission statement.
But as the show was intended for live-streaming audiences initially, MacLochlainn has found turning ‘You’ll See’ into a live, intimate theatrical presentation to be a learning experience in staying true to Joyce’s intent.
“Between myself and Helen, the performer, we adapted the text to work, and we tried to use as much of the original text as possible. The turns of phrase, the language in it is amazing, even in the way that Joyce creates different ways to present the text on the page, in each of the different chapters. Those who know will know, those who don't know, we're here to just add more colour for them.”
For every piece that trades on experimentation, play and risk for Cork Midsummer, there’s seemingly an equal space made for the communities and groups that form the backbone of the city’s arts scene year-round.
Curated and produced by Abbey and Arran Blake of Mayfield noisemakers Pretty Happy, ‘Quare’ features expression in all its forms, including live radioplay-style performances, tarot readings on specially-designed queer cards, food from local vendors like My Goodness, and music from local artists like Elaine Malone, Kevin Terry and emerging experimentalists I Dreamed I Dream.
A member of the latter band, musician and journalist Julie Landers is enthusiastic about the event’s use of the space, and other ways that Midsummer has done exploratory work on new and emerging venues in a changing Cork.
“What I'm really excited for about ‘Quare’ is telling friends it's happening, and they're like, 'oh, that's the park down the road from me'. It's in the middle of where people are living, where their lives and their own stories are unfolding. Having it within that space is a really fantastic thing, because there's a different mindset between gearing yourself up to go to a gig, and then just walking out your door, and there being this amazing display kind of happening in front of you.”
“What's really cool about the Midsummer Festival is how it embeds these celebrations of what is happening in Irish arts and culture within the living framework of the city. Having them on the streets and the parks is really important, and really fantastic.”
It’s the groundwork on spaces and their use, as well as a variety of ways for people to participate in the arts locally, that has made the Midsummer Festival a pillar of the local scene - and Landers sees this year’s edition as an important part of maintaining momentum.
“I hope this isn't something that goes away. I hope we're going to hold on to the momentum of this, or keep it well within the periphery of how we plan these events going forward. I think it's really important because there's always been conversations around inclusivity, reaching out and stuff. I think it's really, really important to be having them. These are such small acts, but they have a huge impact.”
For Lorraine Maye, in little under a week, the festival will be underway, and busy time begins in earnest, as hundreds of artists and facilitators branch out from Covid-era restrictions and begin the process of figuring out how things might look in the coming months and years.
Reinforcing that sense of community is a process that Midsummer looks set to be a critical, supporting part of for the foreseeable future, for a wide variety of artists and partners.
“Community is really important to the festival too, enabling communities in Cork to tell their own stories, y'know, and that perspective is totally unique.
“It's something that we're doing this year through things like the Nightwalk With Teenagers event, just such a core part of what we do, that participatory practice, and enabling them to show us their city, and also a glimpse of what they think the future of the city might hold as well, because, of course, they are the next generation. So it's really important that we support all of that vision coming up behind us, as well.”
- For more info and tickets, go to https:/www.corkmidsummer.com.
- ‘Ulysses 2.2: You’ll See’ happens between June 16-19 at Civic Trust House, Popes Quay; check website for times and ticket options.
- ‘Quare’ takes place on June 19 at St Anne’s Park, Shandon; between 2 and 6pm, featuring a range of art, performance and food from LGBT* people and their allies; free entry