Words by Paul Gallear / Pics courtesy of BE FESTIVAL
We can’t avoid Europe these days: it’s in our parliaments, our newspapers, and our consciousness; on our television screens, our news bulletins, and our ballot papers. And now it’s in our theatres too.
BE FESTIVAL (Birmingham European Festival) landed in Birmingham for its seventh year on 4th July, aiming to bring with it, according to their website, ‘a daring and innovative programme of boundary pushing theatre, dance, comedy, circus, music, visual and performing arts’.
And Europe is certainly here as I step into what feels like the service entrance to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (REP); a diverse mixture of people, speaking at least four different languages that I can detect, mingle in a raw, industrial backstage area of the REP. This space (the theatre’s ‘Construction Workshop’) acts as the hub of the festival. It has the Karma Bar with its own currency (The Karma), a stage for live music, a shabby-chic seating area of furniture all jumbled together, various banana-themed sculpture (Elizabeth Hudson’s Free Movement) and works by other artists to spot around the venue. The feel is edgy yet arty, middle class yet urban.
Soon we are asked to take our seats and are ushered around corridors which pass by dressing rooms and conference suites to the performance space. The crowd is full and the stage is bare, save for a telephone and a chair. Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, the festival’s directors (interviewed here by Damien Russell) take the stage for brief introduction and then the show can begin.
The SenseMaker by Woman’s Move of Switzerland is the first piece – the story of one woman (played by Elsa Couvreur) waiting for human interaction from an automated phone message and her increasing frustrations, bringing to my mind the increasing role technology plays in our lives and the way in which bureaucracy is perceived. The dancing, mixed with elements of mime and sign language, builds with increasing frenzy and keeps the audience and myself hooked.
The spoken word/singing is no less impressive, combining a bewildering array of languages and sources such as Jethro Tull, Rammstein, Nicki Minaj, yodelling, and Eurovision, all with the constant of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ bursting through exuberantly at the crescendo. It is an excellent performance, a funny and triumphant start to the evening that leaves me hopeful of a great night.
A quick change of set (during which the audience is asked to leave the theatre) takes us into the next act, Portraits and Short Stories by Panama Pictures, hailing from The Netherlands. The stage has expanded greatly and now features platforms, ramps, a pole, a trampoline, and a rope, but no props. An old man sits alone.
This modern dance piece aims to ‘explore the relationships binding families and different generations together’. Five more men enter, aged 20 to 60, and all the players begin to interact with each other and the set. A visually busy performance combines elements of parkour, circus skills, pole dancing, ballet, trampoline, acrobatics, and rope work. It bristles with sensuality and physicality. The diverse and changing nature of relationships between people is captured in the movement of the players – now tense and posturing; now gentle and loving. The intensity builds as the routine becomes more daring and more frenetic. Portraits and Short Stories sees the best reaction of the night, with more than one audience member on their feet. And very well deserved. After two strong opening acts I have high expectations for the second half of the show.
After an interval for a meal served on the REP’s main stage, the third act of the night – Marco D’Agostin from Italy, performs Everything is OK. Again the theatre has changed; the enlarged space remains but the platforms and trampolines have been cleared away to leave a stark, white space.
An explosive and fast-paced monologue, touching on rap, song, speeches, and movie quotes, bombards the audience with a plethora of hard-to-follow references in a number of different languages. As promised in the programme, D’Agostin is out to ‘challenge our ability to compute endless information’. He then bursts into his equally wide-ranging dance routine which covers a myriad of styles. The peaks and troughs of energy are matched with the subtly-changing lighting and the austerely beautiful music. Everything is OK, although similar to The SenseMaker as a combination of dancing and lyrical content, is not as captivating and lacks the humour. I find it difficult to engage with the long dance routine, though I admit dance is not a subject I am very familiar with; the audience response, whilst still good, is also more muted.
All change again for the final act of the evening. The Casa Da Esquina Company from Portugal presents Ricardo Correia in My Country Is What The Sea Doesn’t Want, and a more crowded stage, featuring filing cabinets, a desk, and a suitcase.
Correia is the main focus of the piece, relating his own story of immigration and those of other people he has interviewed. Sara Jobard stands at a desk, providing occasional visual content through a small video camera, maps and an array of props set out on the table before her.
The show is funny and engaging – mixing various media such as photography, videography, physical theatre, and audience participation – but it fails to stick to a coherant narrative and the characters aren’t clearly delineated. The video link seems to suffer from technical problems too. The message of My Country Is What The Sea Doesn’t Want is clear and noble but disparately presented. I am, however, left with a an emourmous amount of sympathy for Correia and those portrayed in his work.
The night continues back in the hub, where The Brave Sons of Elijah Perry have just taken to the stage to provide ‘a Mississippi boat-load of energy’. But alas, with my last train departing, I have run out of time to watch them just as I have run out of space in which to review them.
At BE FESTIVAL tonight, the first half of the show was the stronger of the two. At times it all felt a little chaotic (I’m still not sure why we had to leave the theatre between each act, nor why I had to show my ticket each time I reentered) but perhaps that reflects the backstage-feel the event strives for. BE FESTIVAL promises an eclectic mix and it certainly delivers, and although not everything is quite to my taste such a wide-ranging bill is bound to have something to please almost everyone. The space at the REP is certainly well used by both the festival and the performers and all of the acts managed to convey to me a sense of the purpose of their work with minimal use of props.
There is a clear message of hope and celebration of the diversity of Europe coming from BE FESTIVAL and I leave feeling enthused by most of what I have seen. The night overall manages in its ethos to reflect Europe and its vagaries as a whole; some parts are strong and some parts are weaker, but it is diverse, exciting, funny, tragic, exuberant and, most of all, worth hanging on to. We can’t avoid Europe these days, and nor should we.
For more from the Birmingham REP, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk