(Patrick Freyne’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 5/5; King Lear in a Van: Arthur Riordan as King Lear with Karen McCartney as Cordelia and Matthew Malone as Kent. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw.)

King Lear in a Van is a clever way of bringing theatre and drama to the masses

If you were loitering around Ely Place in Dublin recently you may have heard some worrying bellowing from the car park/loading bay of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Don’t worry, it was just King Lear, sitting on a yellow Ikea throne in the back of a converted van having it out with his daughters Cordelia, Regan and Goneril.

“Where we’re rehearsing today is the first time we have had good acoustics,” says Matthew Malone who plays Goneril, Regan, Gloucester and Kent in this production of King Lear in a van. “And Arthur is booming.” King Lear is played by Arthur Riordan. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard that. It’s like the Abbey, this car park.”

King Lear in a Van is the new offering from Festival in a Van which was devised at the outset of the pandemic by regular Irish Times contributor Gemma Tipton. King Lear is on the Leaving Cert this year and the team are available to perform at schools with help from the Bank of Ireland/Business to Arts Begin Together grant. Tipton has form with festivals. She ran the Kinsale Arts Festival and the Backwater Opera Festival. “I’d been writing about festivals closing down, talking to people who didn’t know when they were going to work again,” she says. “I thought, well, is there a way to do live performance safely?”

She had an epiphany and woke in the middle of the night saying: “Festival in a Van!” She enlisted production manager Rob Furey and production manager and health and safety expert Pete Jordan and, with financial support from Creative Ireland, they bought a van, hired two more vans and built sets that could be unfolded from them in just 10 minutes. “To start with,” she says, “I thought, ‘Oh, people won’t want to be in a van.’”

She hadn’t reckoned with how hungry performers were to perform and how hungry audiences were for live performance. They’ve worked with storytelling group Candlelit Tales, opera singers like Gavin Ring and drag performers like Avoca Reaction and arranged performances at schools, care homes, direct provision centres and housing estates. “One of the things that’s been good about Covid is the forgotten spaces have been looked at again,” says Tipton. “Who cared about care homes and direct provision centres?”

‘Heartbreakingly gorgeous’

She is now aware of a “map” of isolated care homes scattered all over the country and thinks there could be scope for projects like this to continue beyond the pandemic, bringing art and music to people that don’t always have access to it. Some of the experiences they’ve had, she says, have been “heartbreakingly gorgeous”. Furey recalls an 84-year-old former session musician moved to tears experiencing live music from the van. Tipton tells me about a letter she received from a woman who runs a care home after a performance by Gavin Ring. “She wrote saying ‘This is the only nice thing that’s happened in 12 months’, which also makes you realise how shitty it’s been for them.”

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