Words by Damien Russell / Pics courtesy of BE FESTIVAL
It’s day four of the Birmingham European Festival (or BE FESTIVAL for short) and having been lucky enough to interview the festival directors Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, I am keen to see how the event delivers the ‘dizzying array of entertainment’ that the programme has promised us.
As usual, I get lost walking through Birmingham (using whichever car park is cheapest has its challenges) but still make it in plenty of time and having been pre-warned that the event entrance is at the back of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, I wander round and in. The setting has been described in Wednesday night’s BREVIEW from Paul Gallear but I would add that the visual art exhibitions are largely all interactive and nobody is left without something to enjoy, be it bar, video or art experience.
In good time, the call is made that the doors are open and though the event has unallocated seating it’s a well-natured queue. As there are four acts on per night it is understandable that the stage we are presented with on entry is quite stark and devoid of props; clean changeovers must be key to the timing of each night. This does, of course, lead me to think about what clever uses of staging we can expect, and that to me is always one of the joys of what I would be tempted to term ‘lo-fi’ theatre.
The format of the night remains the same as the previous nights and we begin our four-act lineup with Claudia Catarzi’s 40,000 Centimetri Quadrati – a dance piece that begins with minimalist movement and sound, yet flourishes into a fully musically backed performance that uses the full extent of the stage. The stage itself contains only an approximately 8ft square boarded section; Catarzi begins her piece moving within this area with uncertain, almost unnatural movements – more automaton than dancer, at times using what I would associate with the circus skill Isolation.
As the piece develops Catarzi explores the extents of this confined space, expanding her movements and increasing her fluidity to match the build in sound and lighting effects – until, eventually, she breaks free of the 8ft square board and her movements are almost jubilant. The message seems clear to me and while the idea of breaking ‘out of the box’ is certainly not a new one, it has never been presented to me in such a format before; I found the piece captivating in presentation, clearly understandable and overall, very engaging. Something as I will freely admit is unexpected; dance is not a medium that has ever really appealed.
As is typical for BE FESTIVAL we are asked to leave while the stage is re-set and it’s an opportunity to reflect and discuss what we just experienced. No bad thing. As we re-enter the auditorium, ODC Ensemble are onstage and performing an almost ‘on-hold’ introductory part of their act which is a nice touch. The stage is almost split into thirds: musical equipment to the left, a table with a 3D cardboard cityscape in the centre, with another table containing a laptop, small camera and some other technological items beyond my comprehension on the right. Each section has its own performer and while they are separate to a degree, they interact in turn throughout the show.
ODC Ensemble’s show, REVOLT ATHENΣ, concerns Athens and is thematically in three parts: Athens as presented to and seen by tourists, the darker Athens behind that and, the Athens that the people there live in/with. Deeply moving at times, we are reminded that this Mediterranean paradise has the same issues as any major city and in some cases, worse. There is a stark emotional transition mid-way through, as the recent riots and political unrest in the nation are presented ‘warts and all’, but it gets a bit surreal after this mid-point and to my mind loses some of the impact of the piece. If grunge were theatre this would be it; excellent concept, important message, Marmite execution.
And then we break for lunch; dining on the main stage of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre isn’t something I do every day so, quite looking forward to it, I wend my way in. The room is as I would expect – it’s mass catering and a bit ‘school dinner’ feeling, but done well enough. Plenty of salad and bread on offer, the main dish comes hot and the staff are attentive. None of the performers sit at our table, which is a bit of a disappointment, but nevertheless, hunger abated, we return to a stage which now contains an unusual array of objects: a small paddling pool, several jugs of water, a table with ping-pong equipment and juggling rings and a flip-chart on a stand.
This of course is the setting to What Does Stuff Do? performed by Robin Boon Dale, intriguingly advertised as ‘using innovative juggling, physical comedy and almost-philosophy’. And I’m certainly not disappointed. Dale is an engaging performer, eloquent and disarming, and his performance moves through a number of circus acts and prat-falls designed to display items and acts we can easily recognise, yet modified and taken out of context to challenge perception.
Dale moves through his act smoothly, dazzling us with his skills and making us laugh with his mishaps. I am never certain if any of these mishaps are actually accidental or if they are all for effect and that is part of the charm of the performance. Perhaps not the most emotionally challenging act of the night, I nevertheless feel What Does Stuff Do? is the most entertaining and Dale’s point is clear – every new scenario offers us a new opportunity to be who/what we want to be in the context of what is around us, which is a valuable life lesson in evaluating our actions. Dale describes himself and us all as ‘tools’ in the context of his philosophical point; never have I been called a tool in a more appropriate and enjoyable manner.
There is no break between What Does Stuff Do? and Waiting for Schrödinger, our final staged act of the evening; Timothy and the Things enter the stage, backs to the audience to begin their predominantly dance related act. It’s never made clear who Timothy is and who are the Things, but as the first group performance which is not lead by one of the cast over the others, who is who is clearly not important.
The group move through a surrealistic show where interactions between them are designed to apply the Schrödinger’s Cat theory to a more realistic scenario. I find myself more affected by the surrealism of it than the message for much of the performance, I must admit. But the message is still there as we see cast members dealing with isolation, exclusion and vying for dominance before being pushed away.
Waiting for Schrödinger moves in ‘scenes’, and while each scene is well put together some of the transitions feel clumsy at times. The last slot of the night is always a tough one to have, tougher than the first in some ways, and while not a bad performance or a bad piece of work Waiting for Schrödinger unfortunately doesn’t quite top the bill for me.
Before it’s time to go home we take part in the BE FESTIVAL’s commissioned British Enough? ‘immersive experience’. The show begins and almost immediately I am put in mind of The Running Man by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King) and George Orwell’s 1984 having a baby, and that baby growing up in Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room.
Moving through the previously inaccessible backstage areas of the theatre we are treated to a dystopian view of what entering the British Isles could be like, where immigrants, migrants and asylum seekers are forced to compete against each other (and the state) in an intense and disconcerting environment.
The performance by Kristina Cranfield and Foolish People is excellent and British Enough? is certainly immersive. I must admit, I had been expecting something more educational about our current situation than this extreme future representation and I can’t help but feel the piece ends a little weakly. But as a lover of immersive theatre I’m certainly not disappointed.
‘Groundbreaking’ or ‘artsy’ theatre can be a little hit and miss, and even though an event like BE FESTIVAL has a screening process for acts there’s still always a risk of something not being to your taste or even just being too unobtainable/obscure. But my experience of BE FESTIVAL 2017 is that while the programme pushes the boundaries of traditional performance, it remains vigilant in keeping things accessible to a broad range of people.
There are things I didn’t ‘get’ entirely and things I didn’t like entirely, but nothing alienates me entirely; as a new audience member, there was plenty that actively encourages participation and engagement. So if a challenging but accessible series of thought provoking acts sounds like something you would enjoy, BE FESTIVAL is an event to fix in your calendar for 2018.
For more on BE Festival, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit www.befestival.org
For more from the Birmingham REP, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk