ArtBeat goes to the Festival: Big Man, gay attitudes, Abdullah Ibrahim, Poetry Jukebox, Bill Viola, Merce Cunningham, Jane Coyle and the RSC

As the Belfast International Arts Festival enters its final week, Jane Hardy asks some of those involved for their reflections as the cultural cornucopia marks its 60th anniversary

Paul McVeigh, writer of Big Man. Picture by Johnny Frazer
Jane Hardy

PAUL McVeigh, the dramatist behind Big Man at The Lyric Theatre (until November 6), remembers his first Festival offering: "Many years ago I set up a production company in Belfast and put on The Handsome Cabin Boy, based on an old folk song Kate Bush used as a B side to Hounds of Love.

"My show was part of a trial Belfast Fringe. Funnily enough, Kate Bush still an inspiration and Hounds of Love features in Big Man."

McVeigh (52) says: "I wanted to write a love story between two men and that's not something you see very often on stage. I hope people see it and connect with it emotionally and hear things they haven't heard before."

He adds he has seen significant changes in attitudes towards gay men in Northern Ireland. "Recently I saw two young men holding hands in Cornmarket," he says.

"When I was younger, there was only one gay bar in Belfast and it was only gay after nine on Saturday night. I don't think a straight person can ever know what it's like to live a life where you can't express emotion towards the person you love."

Maria McManus, poet and instigator of one of the Festival's most popular entertainments, the Poetry Jukebox, remembers enjoying the music of Abdullah Ibrahim in a previous Festival.

"It was just sublime music, something we wouldn't have heard without the Festival." As she says, the BIAF brings international names here but also showcases local artists of an international standard like Eileen McClory, whose film Bind is free to view via the Festival website.

Anne McReynolds, chief executive of The MAC reveals she got her first job after university working for BIAF's predecessor, the Belfast Festival at Queen's. "I did admin and box office, and remember the excitement, sense of adventure and busyness in the streets. This was '88 or '89 and Belfast was a very different place."

She recalls an incredible installation in the Gasworks by Bill Viola and a Merce Cunningham production and says this year she has particularly enjoyed Ron's World ("a little think piece"), Stephen Beggs's guide to the Ron Mueck exhibition at The MAC, a co-production with Young at Art.

Jane Coyle, critic and playwright, whose new play After Melissa is at the Brian Friel Theatre until November 5, then moves to Seamus Heaney Homeplace on November 10, Market Place Theatre, Armagh on November 11, Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick on November 12 and Cushendall Golf Club on November 15, has been covering Festival events since the mid-80s.

"Early highlights included regular visits by the Royal Shakespeare Company who were faithful visitors during the Troubles. I saw Gerard Murphy in Hamlet and Fiona Shaw as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Also John Cage and Merce Cunningham's last collaboration, Ocean."

Jane Hardy