Not even an international pandemic could stop Ireland’s 15th annual Culture Night with events happening both in person and online across the country. The night was given extra resonance by virtue of sharing the date of the government’s decision to tighten lockdown restrictions in Dublin, meaning that recently opened cinemas, museums, and other cultural sites would once again be closed until further notice. Realising halfway through the night that the very places we were celebrating in would again be closed, I wanted to soak up everything I could. Some events are still up online and are worth checking out via the Culture Night website.
As theatres have been closed since March, I was especially looking forward to seeing what they had to offer. The Gaiety School of Acting’s Production of Hamlet, available alongside Below Below by Fionnuala Gygax and several shorts, did not disappoint. Cutting an hour and a half from the play would usually make me recoil in English-student horror, but such an ambitious choice of play for those still learning their craft is worth supporting. And, to be fair, the cut was very good, with only the most important scenes remaining.
After a long time away from the theatre, it was a delight to enter the stream and see a pair of blue curtains on the left side of the screen, knowing that these would form the backdrop for the players as well as the site of Polonius’ death. The stage consisted of a large black and white chequered square surrounded on all sides by black edging, evoking the setting of a chessboard. This association was made clear from the first scene where Hamlet delivers the line: “A little more than kin and less than kind” shrouded in black, while Polonius and Gertrude stand together in the square. They are playing the game in a way which Hamlet, invisible in the dark save for his face, cannot. He is not yet a player in the political games of Denmark, and for now it seems that this king has been taken off the board by his relatives’ recent political marriage.
As we know, he still has a role to play. Their Hamlet occasionally struggled with the material; the line “My father’s spirit in arms! All is not well,” was such an understatement that the combination of the lights going out and the sound cue played more as humorous than as dramatic, but overall gave a good performance of one of the most performed roles in the English language theatre canon. I was struck by the scene where he welcomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Denmark in Act two and how the love for his friends radiated off of him. This scene made their betrayal and their ultimate fate all the more heartbreaking.
This was the fourth version of Hamlet I had seen, so I was delighted to see Polonius draw out newfound laughs from the script. In a play with ghosts, pirates, poison, sword-fights and madness, playing the comic, whose humor is mostly derived from how boring he is, Polonius is a difficult role to get right. This time around I was delighted with him, especially with the decision for Horatio to grapple Polonius to aid Hamlet in his murder.
Of course, a game of chess ends when the king is removed, which, combined with Fortinbras’ absence from the play, encouraged us to think of Hamlet as the rightful king as the play ends directly after his death. It adds an eerie quality to the play, suggesting that perhaps the Danes had less control over their actions than they would like others to believe. The game began anew with the death of the old king, and once again had come to an end. Horatio, the transient players and the gravedigger remaining leaves the people of Denmark in a precarious state, having been failed by their leaders who cannot help but resort to treachery. Though it was not staged with Covid-19 in mind, it was more than an adequate choice of productions to stream. Watching a student theatrical production was undeniably odd now that the theatre industry is struggling under the weight of Covid-19 restrictions. It was impossible not to think about the actors and the stress they must currently be under with some at the beginning of their budding careers.
The Abbey Theatre was also made available to us once more thanks to Culture Night with their annual tour of the space. This year’s excursion is still available on their YouTube channel, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. The focus on the Abbey’s place in Irish history informs the viewer of how inextricable art and politics are in Irish history. Ireland’s National Theatre before Ireland existed as a state and the connection between the theatre and the Irish Cultural Revival and the 1916 Rising is thrilling to hear, even for those with vague memories of the events. The static camerawork for this section as well as the decision for the three presenters to focus on paintings and other historical objects in the theatre helped keep things visually interesting.
The tour also provided viewers with interviews with a producer, a stage manager and a costume designer. Though I would have liked more detail from the producer’s interview regarding how one deals with the use of water, fire, and flying furniture in a theatre where every seat has a full view of the stage, it was still deeply enlightening. Thinking about dealing with the numerous questions that come with a character needing a phone or having to provide exact replicas of outfits only to then rip, muddy and bloody them will have you cringing in sympathy. Seeing what goes on behind the scenes will make you even more appreciative of the efforts that go into theatre-making.
The tour concludes with the actor’s view of the theatre, standing on stage looking out at the empty audience. Once more, the effects of Covid-19 are difficult to ignore with a lack of an audience. However, I was encouraged by the theatre’s perseverance with the news that This Beautiful Virtual Village will be online until November, tickets for which are available for only €5.
The National Leprechaun Museum, though somewhat less instrumental to the development of modern Ireland both politically and artistically, also engaged with Culture Night through videos still available on their YouTube channel. As someone who has taken their day tour and frequently listens to their podcast, I was delighted. The museum focuses not just on leprechauns, but also on Irish mythology and the tradition of storytelling. However, these Culture Night videos focused on the history of Dublin rather than their usual topics, which meant they give a flavour of the style through which stories are presented while still providing something new for those who have visited the museum before.
Understandably, standing alone in front of a camera unable to feed off the energy of an assembled group while dealing with less-practiced material seemed to affect some of the tour guides, but that didn’t make the strange nuggets of Dublin’s history any less interesting. These were also filmed outside, meaning that, for those who have not yet ventured inside, the strange world created inside the museum is yet another thing to look forward to for when Covid-19 is a thing of the past. My favourite mental image from these tales was that of a group of NCAD students holding the head from Nelson’s pillar for ransom to raise money for their college. Whimsical moments like this are useful in helping us to see those who lived before us, not just as the preferred subject of social historians, but also as real people.
The final site I visited virtually was that of Black Church Print Studio, an artistic collective which gave viewers the rare treat of witnessing the creation of an art piece. Videos showing the processes of mezzotint, photo-etching, lithography, and copper-plate etching are still available on the studio’s Facebook page, and for those like me whose last artwork was a homemade birthday card, it is yet another opportunity to learn about those who add such beauty to Dublin’s culture. Tours of the studio were available through still, 3D, and stop-motion images. The ultimate approach is most heart-warming not in the studio itself, but while you are simulating the experience of walking the buildings’ winding staircases. Here the walls are lined with artwork, presumably by those who use the space. There is little space between the packed-in pieces, and they pass by too quickly for specifics, forcing you to smile when you think of just how many creators have participated in the making of the exhibit.
As much as I have enjoyed previous Culture Nights, this one takes the cake. Watching people who have been struggling through necessary restrictions come together to remind us of the messy, beautiful, chaotic, powerful city and country that we live in was moving to a degree I had not anticipated. It reminded me of how important it is to support local artists, especially during a pandemic that continues to limit their abilities to support themselves. Though Culture Night is over and many of these buildings must close once again, there are still ways that we can help. The Irish Film Institute is renting films online; the gardens of The Museum of Literature are still available to walk through, and the Contemporary Music Centre is still selling books, scores and CDs on their online store. Those of us who can should be thinking of ways to contribute to those who enrich our culture during the pandemic in order to ensure that they will still be there when it’s over.