Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Conflict of interest: Belfast festival goes to war

Organisers adopt a topical theme for our troubled times

One of the main themes running through the 48th Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s is that of conflict.

The biggest-ever show to play in Northern Ireland — the National Theatre of Scotland's Blackwatch — takes as its subject the conflict in Iraq. It's based on the experiences of soldiers from the Scottish regiment who have played their part in the war on terror.

Then there’s Paddy Ashdown, no stranger to the battleground himself, who’ll be in Belfast to talk about his role as a soldier and peacemaker.

Do you remember Jo Wilding? She hit the headlines when she chucked an orange at Tony Blair in protest at the horrors caused by US sanctions in Iraq.

Three years later she went to find out for herself what life was like in Baghdad, when she took a circus troupe there. Don’t Shoot The Clowns is a punchy drama about what she found there.

With war come inevitable questions about patriotism. What flag flies over your country? What anthem do you stand for?

These are always a touchy topic here in Northern Ireland — which is why Colin Bateman has written a new comedy on the subject. Ransom Productions will unveil National Anthem in a show specially commissioned for festival.

You’ll have to form an orderly queue to see Alan Bennett’s wonderful new play, The Habit of Art, which takes as its starting point a fictional meeting between poet WH Auden and composer Benjamin Britten.

Beware — this might win a prize as the earthiest show in town...

Then there's the very best in music, song and dance on offer for the 16 jam-packed days and nights of top entertainment. Irish rock legend Paul Brady is teaming up with the Ulster Orchestra for a special concert in the Waterfront Hall; local heroes Therapy? return home to play in the Mandela Hall (and talking of Nelson, Peter Hain will be here to speak about his new biography of the former South African president).

Imogen Heap and Mary Chapin Carpenter will be playing music to soothe the most savage of breasts, and for those who like their tunes to come with tapshoes, there's Putting on your Top Hat, which is a glorious evening of musical numbers from the films of Fred Astaire.

Fancy a guided tour of the musical map of Belfast? There is a bus trip which covers the rock'n'roll past of greats like Van Morrison, Ruby Murray, Gary Moore and Stiff Little Fingers.

That's an example of festival on the move... and there are treats in all sorts of unusual places — from central Station to the City Hall, and Cityside to Victoria Square.

Commuters can enjoy a little Chopin played on a grand piano as they travel into work by train, while Saturday shoppers will hear the tinkle of ivories when they take a break in the city centre.

Then there's magic in the air at Botanic, where Cahoots NI has created an Enchanted Garden that will appeal to the child in everyone.

Cahoots will also be staging a mini-festival of shows for young children — check out the pretty little box office at the gates to the Gardens.

There are shows in a monastery, dancing on a boat on the Lagan, and an opera based in a bingo hall.

A record-breaking 37 venues will play host to more than 500 artists and performers.

So let’s not hear anyone complaining they’re bored, eh?

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