Galway Arts Festival

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The Independent Culture
After an opening salvo of local talent, the second half of the 18th Galway Festival saw the wheeling in of the international big guns - the Wadaiko Ichiro Drummers of Japan and a contingent of South Africa's Market Theatre. The notion of big guns was an appropriate metaphor in the local journalistic canon re the drummers - the Irish Times' reviewer summing up the size of the instruments and the scale of intensity with the phrase "medieval artillery".

Opening four nights at the Festival's 1,200-seater marquee, the ensemble received rapturous appreciation for a performance awesome not least for the relentlessness of its physical demands. An array of skinned beasts, from piccolo snare-ish affairs to 1,000lb leviathans, were played, often horizontally, with implements the girth of rolling pins. Natural reverb and actual dynamics may have battled it out amid the volume but there was no mistaking the precision arrangements or the ritualistic fervour on the faces of the eight men and two women involved. In this respect there was more mad-eyed, legs-akimbo posturing than the most exuberant practitioners of heavy metal.

The absence of ill-weather, for the 10th year in a row, coinciding with the annual parade by Galway's grand-scale stage innovators, Macnas, fuelled the local talk that Macnas' mainman Paraic Breatnach has done a deal with the Devil. But the preponderance of unfavourable elemental activity during the open-air performance of Melville's Moby Dick rather put the mockers on that one.

Elemental activity was one factor in thedownfall of Sir John Franklin 150 years ago, in his doomed attempt to find a north-west passage. No Earthly Pole by Galway's Punchbag Theatre Company was a triumph of impeccable research. It explored the extraordinary tale - from simple eccentricity and intrigue to sheer cannibalism - with an impressionistic jigsaw of words and music, a cast of three and a seven-piece string section. Writer and narrator Fred Johnston fused material from written sources and the rich folk-song tradition to create a first-rate radio drama merely awaiting a more experienced director's touch to make it a stage work of comparable standing.

Market Theatre's Jozi Jozi - a comic, incisive commentary on "the not- so-new South Africa" with an all-singing, all-dancing cast needed no extra tweakings in the staging department. Reminiscent of English sitcoms in its combination of Seventies cheesiness and Nineties irony, it was a long work comprising a series of sketches to do with the problems of modern Johannesburg (prostitution, corruption, western influence...). The acapella singing was beyond criticism, and while some of the cultural references were lost on a foreign audience the essence of the humour and downright exuberance connected well.

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