Belfast's Arts Festival Helps Temper City's Strife-Torn Image

COMPANIES FROM 12 COUNTRIES PARTICIPATE

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows. Where ox lips and the nodding violet grows.

THE poetry of Shakespeare from ``A Midsummer Night's Dream'' soared from the stage to fill every corner of Belfast's Grand Opera House and to enchant a capacity audience who had come on a cold November evening to participate in a rare theatrical experience.

The audience and actors - from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at Stratford - were sharing in one of the major events in the 27th Belfast Festival at Queen's University, which is in its own right a remarkable survivor in a city better known for violence than artistic achievement.

The RSC production, acclaimed earlier this year by critics at Stratford, lived up to its reputation in Belfast. John Caird's breathtaking production was matched by a stunning set and by acting of the highest order. The Belfast audience loved it, but they are accustomed by now to theater of high quality. This is the eighth year that the RSC has come to the festival, which has the well-deserved reputation of enchanting performers and audiences alike, and even the press.

This year's festival opened Nov. 8 and closes today. It has included scheduled performances by 400 participants from 12 countries. Besides the RSC, the major attractions were the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, and the Body Politic Theater of Chicago.

There were many outstanding individual attractions - ranging from ex-Monty Python stalwart Michael Palin, who won a British Academy film award for ``A Fish Called Wanda,'' to Seamus Heaney, himself a graduate of Queen's, who is widely regarded as the best Irish poet since Yeats and who teaches at Oxford and Harvard.

THIS is only part of the rich tapestry of the Belfast Festival at Queen's, which ranged widely from drama and classical music to jazz and folk. This year's program at the associated Queen's Film Theatre, the best of its kind in the British Isles, highlighted the new film version of ``Henry V,'' featuring Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh, who both directs and stars.

Taking the broad view, the festival has every right to claim a position as the most important of its kind in the United Kingdom outside Edinburgh. The artistic standards of successive festivals are well-documented, but outsiders still wonder how such a distinguished event can flourish in such an apparently grim city.

The answers are twofold: Belfast is by no means as grim or violent as the international headlines would suggest; successive waves of visitors express their astonishment at its vitality, friendliness, artistic depth, and style. Second, the festival is a hardy annual which has survived many harsh winters.

It began as a university-based event in the '60s, but it really started to blossom in the '70s which, ironically, witnessed some of the worst years of Ulster's violence. Much of the credit for the festival's success goes to Michael Barnes, the current director, who took over in 1973. A former history professor at Queen's, Mr. Barnes and a dedicated team of helpers - with assistance from the university, the government-sponsored Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and the public - nursed the festival into vibrant maturity.

During the particularly dark days of violence here, Barnes and the others kept alive the light of culture and paved the way for the resurgence of the city's night life. A turning point in this process was the 3-million-pound refurbishment of the splendid Victorian Grand Opera House, where Barnes is also general administrator and artistic director. The resurgence of the Opera House and its reopening in 1980 led to the gradual regrowth of other areas of entertainment and the mushrooming of a whole range of excellent restaurants and other facilities in what has come to be known as Belfast's ``Golden Mile.''

ONE quality that characterizes Barnes's approach is the personal touch for which the festival is famous. For example, Barnes tells how he personally encouraged Michael Palin to present his first one-man show in Belfast. ``People kept asking me to bring over one of the Monty Pythons, and in 1981 I wrote Michael Palin. I knew that he was a railway enthusiast, and I offered to take him around our excellent Transport Museum. He replied in a handwritten letter; we met and got on famously; and now Michael comes over every other year to do his one-man show, despite his almost impossible schedule of work.''

The main objective of the festival is to provide world-class performances for local audiences who might not otherwise see them. But Robert Agnew, assistant director since 1985, sees another important dimension: ``The biggest by-product is that the festival attracts many visitors, writers, and critics, and they go back telling the good news about the festival and about Northern Ireland.''

The festival is firmly university-based, with financial support from the Arts Council, other sponsors, and the box office. It is required to raise 55 percent of its 500,000 pounds ($775,000) costs from box-office receipts and, in the words of Mr. Agnew, ``We are not always as esoteric as some people might like us to be, but we maintain our high standards together with our popularity.''

Barnes pays tribute to the loyalty of the audiences: ``Of course, it is important to ring the changes, and we do this every year, but when our audiences really take to a performer or a company they want to see them come back again. It's not just a question of `bring on the new.' That's a nice, friendly quality, which is so typical of Belfast.''

That friendly quality is also the essence of the festival. Palin himself summed up this feeling: ``I only ever do my one-man show at the festival in Belfast. People who've never been to the city can't understand why. For me the answer is simple: I find in the city and the people of Belfast an energy potential, a reserve of wit and intelligence and unaffected enthusiasm which I haven't found on the same scale anywhere else.''

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