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June 27 2011

Why small is beautiful when it comes to festivals

One of my favourite festivals is the tiny but perfectly formed Galway theatre festival – and this year's instalment promises to be as brilliant (and boozy) as ever

What makes for a good arts festival? Above all, it has to be distinctive. Edinburgh is obviously defined by its omnivorousness, Manchester by its air of radical experiment. And the Galway arts festival, which kicks off on 11 July, is for me marked by its high-quality selectiveness and liver-testing hospitality. Under the direction of Paul Fahy, himself trained as a visual artist, it clearly believes that nothing but the best is good enough. I've been twice in recent years and have been struck by the way everything on view is excellent, whether it's Blondie in the Festival Big Top or Ed Byrne performing in a room over a pub.

One of the big events in Galway this year is clearly going to be Cillian Murphy starring in a new Enda Walsh play, Misterman. Walsh is an extraordinary writer who seems to arouse mixed feelings in the UK: his plays invariably feature trapped characters and a torrent of words. But seeing his play Penelope last year in Galway, with its updated portrait of four Homeric suitors vying for the heroine's affection, I was struck by the way his work resonates on Irish soil. It mixes the mythic, the metaphoric and the slightly mad in a way that James Joyce himself – and certainly Flann O'Brien – would have appreciated.

Given the country's financial predicament, there's an understandable emphasis on Irish work this year at Galway. Artist Hughie O'Donoghue has created a massive painting in 60 parts, titled The Road. Alongside such imports as Mike Bartlett's Love, Love, Love and Edward Hall's Propeller company, there'll be new work from two radical Irish ensembles, Corcadorca and Fishamble. And the writers who'll be speaking include Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle and Emma Donoghue.

But a festival is much more than a collection of events. It depends heavily on the genius loci. What I can never quite get over in Galway is the feeling that you are part of a continuous 24-hour party (when do they ever sleep?) and that everyone local is involved: my wife, catching a bus to a photographic exhibition on the town's fringe, suddenly found herself caught in an animated discussion with her fellow travellers about the work of Cartier-Bresson. Festivals come and go but Galway, modest in scale but immense in ambition, is one of the finest in the crowded summer calendar. It deserves to be better known. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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