This year's Belfast arts festival the biggest yet says director Richard Wakely

Belfast International Arts Festival gets under way next week with more than 190 performances and events throughout October. Artistic director Richard Wakely tells Joanne Sweeney that, despite past funding setbacks, this year's is the biggest festival to date

Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun opens the Belfast International Arts Festival with its European premiere next week

SELF-confessed "arts activist" Richard Wakely has a boundless enthusiasm and love for the 191 separate events and performances which constitutes next month's 2017 Belfast International Arts Festival.

"It's the biggest festival in living memory," proudly declares the artistic director and chief executive of the independent charity which now runs the 55-year-old annual event after its founder, Queen's University, had to withdraw its funding two years ago due to budget concerns.

"There are 14 countries this year, and last year we had 23 countries represented. All I can say that it's such a joy and an honour and a privilege to work with these artists.

"What we are trying to do is to create a genuinely civic event of contemporary arts and ideas of international appeal and stature.”

However, while there has been more of an international theme about the festival during Wakely's reign, he stresses its Belfast-centric nature as well.

"We work right across all communities and across all areas of the city, irrespective of tradition, background, and of social standing. You will find us down the Newtownards Road and you will find us in the Falls Road.

"While we do work in the great cultural citadels in the centre of town, it’s a festival that’s very much values inclusivity, diversity and equality. That’s really what we are about.

"And it’s noteworthy that the Irish News has been very good at supporting cultural events and arts and culture in the city and indeed throughout Northern Ireland."

The 58-year-old has come a long way in the world of theatre and the arts since he helped out at the box office while studying geography at Queen's University a fair few moons ago.

"I learnt from the greatest, the wonderful Betty Craig [former assistant director of hte festival], Michael Barnes [former director] and Robert Agnew [also former director]," he remembers fondly.

Before taking up his position as artistic director in 2014, Wakely had a stellar career in the theatre, having worked for 19 years in London, nine of them as manager of the Hampstead Theatre, where he staged 18 West End productions, including one Broadway premiere of Frank McGuiness's Someone Who'll Watch over Me.

He then managed the Abbey Theatre in Dublin when he and his Indian-born wife Teeth Chungh (who's head of production at the Gate Theatre, Dublin) left London to set up home with their then baby son Conor, now 19. Youngest son Ciaran (17) has only lived in Dublin, where the family calls home, although Wakely is Belfast-based from Monday to Friday.

He says that this year’s festival takes on major themes, particularly with the concept of global citizenry.

"As an arts activist, which is essentially what I am, I have a globalist mentality and one of the things that we are interested in here at the festival is the notion of global citizenry," he explains.

"We need to connect with peoples and communities right across the globe with whom we share many more stories and experiences and history than we truly understand, and in doing that, we will come to a better understanding of ourselves and our own place in the world.

"Our audiences want to hear from artists who reflect what’s happening in other parts of the world and so the festival has changed tack, very definitely, in the last few years. Since it left Queens, it's fair to say that it has become re-energised and refocused."

Money and funding, as ever in arts production, is always a major consideration.

Wakely says: "After our first year we were able to establish reserves – and that, for a charity, is very important. We’re balanced our books every year and, touch wood, it continues.

"I'm thrilled that the Arts Council, Belfast City Council, The British Council and Tourism Northern Ireland are all strong backers of the festival. And we are the only festival in the north of Ireland that gets money from Westminster and from Dublin and we are very proud of that as recognition of our values."

Wakely is positively evangelical about the festival's opening play, Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun, at the Lyric Theatre.

"It’s a very big piece; like so much of the work in the festival, it looks at the causes and the consequences of warfare and we are unashamedly an internationalist festival," he says.

"This play asks us to lift our gaze from the terrible pictures we see in the newspapers and TV of people drowning in the Mediterranean, of children being washed up on the beaches in Turkey, to the causes behind this and one cause is the role of the West, and particularly the imperialist role of the West in the atrocities that have been visited on these countries."

:: For the full programme and tickets to paid and free events from October 6-28, visit

Richard Wakely's Top 5 Festival Picks

1. Compassion: The History of the Machine Gun

Lyric Theatre, October 6-7

Berlin’s world-renowned Schaubühne Theatre opens the festival with British and Irish premiere of a hard-hitting new work from the Swiss director Milo Rau exploring the limits of human compassion in a globalised world of refugee movement and suffering. Expect an uncomfortable but thought-provoking watch from this semi-documentary double monologue play based on real-life experiences. In German and French with English subtitles.

2. The Tempest – Ireland Memory Identity

Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, October 10-28

A major exhibition of large-scale sculptural paintings from one of Ireland’s leading artists, Hughie O’Donoghue. Featuring several new pieces, The Tempest, is boosted by its venue, the newly renovated and historic Carlisle Memorial Church in the north of the city.

3. Celui Qui Tombe (He Who Falls)

Grand Opera House, October 19-20

It has to be seen to be understood, but this perilous spectacle of survival sees artists swing, spin and pivot on a suspended podium in this new contemporary dance work from leading French choreographer, Yoann Bourgeios in its European premiere. A free workshop allows people to try it out themselves – albeit at a much slower pace.

4. Atlantic Arc Orchestra/Luna Pena

Grand Opera House, October 16

Donal Lunny is back in a new collaboration with the Atlantic Arc Orchestra in a performance that pushes tradition to the edge of its boundaries with an intriguing mix of Irish, Scottish and Breton musical ancestry. Sharing the bill is revered Portuguese singer, composer, guitarist and poet Luna Pena with her haunting voice that crosses lands and languages.

5. Poppies: Weeping Window

Ulster Museum, October 14 to December 3

Experience this moving and iconic ceramic Poppy sculpture from artist Paul Commins and designer Tom Piper, first launched in the Tower of London, which will be draped across the front of the Ulster Museum. It's touring as part of the 14-18 NOW programme to mark the First World War centenary and will be accompanied by Contested Legacies, a specially curated supporting programme of talks, music, theatre and literary events.

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