BREVIEW: BE FESTIVAL …Wednesday 04.07.17

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 on BE Festival, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit


INTERVIEW: Isla Aguilar & Miguel Oyarzun – BE FESTIVAL

INTERVIEW: Isla Aguilar & Miguel Oyarzun – BE FESTIVAL / Graeme Braidwood

Words by Damien Russell / Lead pic by Graeme Braidwood 

I’m sitting in the Marmalade Cafe in the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (REP) waiting to interview Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun – directors of the Birmingham European Festival, or BE FESTIVAL for short.

In this tumultuous political time, a festival of European art seemingly has no choice but to move beyond mere celebration and it has become in their own words, a responsibility. And bringing together performers from the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Hungary, in styles incorporating dance, circus acts, puppetry, music, traditional styled theatre and more, BE FESTIVAL seems to be setting out to prove once and for all that we really are Better Together. As the festival programme says, ‘here, in the inclusive city of Birmingham, the multifaceted cultural identities and creativity of a continent will once again be celebrated through performance and art’.

Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun are lovely, approachable people, and our discussion runs to over 45 minutes – far beyond what my tired digits can type out in a single sitting. However, through everything we discuss their enthusiasm and passion are remarkable and heart-warming to see.

It’s a cheap start but I can’t help myself. I go back to square one and ask how the festival came to be. Miguel Oyarzun starts off, explaining “in November 2009 the Arts Council – in collaboration with the cultural sector in Birmingham, started a series of meetings and open talks with the idea of looking at how can we improve the scene in the Midlands. We had a friend that was from Birmingham, at that time we were living in London, and we said ‘why don’t we go to Birmingham and see what’s going on?’” So the birth of BE FESTIVAL came from interest outside of the city?

“At that stage we were thinking about setting up a theatre company,” continues Oyarzun, “and so we said ‘okay, well, we’ve never been to Birmingham, let’s go and see what the scene is like.’ We came to one of the open talks and it was a two day talk so after the first day we were saying ‘gosh, these people are great, they’re up for collaborating, there seems to be a good sector and they’re all talking about international work and saying there’s not enough. There’s not enough international work coming to Birmingham. At that stage the REP had just closed, or was about to close down to refurbish, so there was even less as the REP do bring some international work but even with the REP there wasn’t enough.”

“So we asked people ‘so when is the Theatre Festival happening? The International Theatre Festival?’ Assuming there was one. And they said ‘no, there’s no theatre festival. There’s a brilliant performance festival, there are festivals of music, festivals of cinema, but there’s no theatre festival.’ We were kind of a bit surprised by that really.”

“It’s (Birmingham) the second city of the country and it was kind of weird,” add Isla Aguilar. “In Spain almost every single city has a festival of theatre and here the tradition is much bigger than in Spain so we were, like, wow, this is kind of… awkward.”

And so through raising the question in an open talk with members of the Arts Council, the City Council and the wider artistic community, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun became the organisers of this long standing event. I smile at how raising an issue in an open forum can so often lead to you finding a solution to it yourself. Some clichés do prove themselves time and time again.

We talk more about that first year; I ask how the programme looked for their debut. “We put out a call (for acts),” tells Miguel Oyarzun, “and received 67 proposals which at the time we thought ‘wow, 67’…” “…this is massive” adds Ilsa Aguilar, before Oyarzun finishes, “now this year we received 1070. So, you know.”

I know. BE FESTIVAL has certainly grown since it began and it seems to be an annual event that doesn’t sit on its laurels or stay in its comfort zone. As the directors themselves write, the event has ‘the ultimate aim of breaking down borders, that only serve to divide us’.

The programme is expansive too, with this year presenting a variety of shows and subjects from pertinent to the more playful. There’s Paula Rosolen & Haptic Hide Aerobics ‘recalling the ’80s-born trend for aerobics’ in Aerobics! A Ballet in 3 Acts (Tues 4th / Germany), alongside The SensemakerElsa Couvreur’s one woman dance show ‘to a quick-switching backing track’ (Weds 5th / Switzerland) and Anatomia Publica – the story of a solider returning home after being presumed dead to find his wife remarried, ‘performed in an intense style that bridges physical theatre and dance’ as presented by Man Drake and Tomeo Vergés (Sat 8th/ Spain, France).

So seven years later, with more than 15 times the production proposals coming in, how do Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun come to choose the acts at BE FESTIVAL“The idea behind the programme has always been a kind of festival to cross borders so we programme work that does that,” explains Oyarzun. “The first criterion is the quality and then we programme work that does one of the following things; one, to cross disciplines. So work that is in-between dance, theatre, circus, puppetry, any kind of discipline.”

“The second thing would be that they cross the language border. So it’s work that is either not using words, so, communicating through physicality or through other means. A show that would fit into that is a pure theatre show where they use masks and there’s no words so we see everything that happens before the words are needed or when there’s not a need for words any more… Emotion and content come from a different place that is more touching, that is deeper than words.”

Quality is also key at BE FESTIVAL and “everybody has to do an application and goes through that application process” continues Aguilar. “It’s a way also that we will see a lot of people that have not necessarily made it onto the circuit yet. It’s a way to discover companies who are doing amazing things and it’s beautiful because each year we feel confident that we have companies that haven’t been seen in this country or haven’t been seen on many other festivals and we are giving them their first opportunity.”

“And that doesn’t mean they don’t have quality”, adds Miguel Oyarzun, “it’s an extraordinary programme of beautiful unique art. Some of the companies are world class companies. However, they may have not jumped into the stages of the UK yet or some of them are very big in their countries but haven’t come. Some of them are not big in their countries but have a lot of potential or are very good but for some reason they haven’t managed to get their art out.”

We touch on Britain leaving the EU (the referendum vote took place during BE FESTIVAL 2016) and as organisers of a festival celebrating European work it comes as no surprise that the political situation is a concern – one that changes the tone of our discussion to a more sombre one, tinged with sadness. But whatever their personal feelings, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun are keen to see people come together at BE FESTIVAL and openly discuss their thoughts and apprehensions, “it takes a lot of work to bring people together,” begins Oyarzun, “it’s something that you build very little by little and then it’s very easy to break things apart. It takes much less work to do that… of course, we would want this to be open to people who think differently to us and hopefully seduce them that another Europe is possible and we can live together.”

BE FESTIVAL has also commissioned a new piece of theatre exploring the subject, with British Enough? showcased on Thurs 6th, Fri 7th and Sat 8th July. A collaboration between artist/filmmaker Kristina Cranfeld and writer/director John Harrigan, this new production explores ‘the notion of becoming British’ through the ‘fixed, itemised cornerstones which are deemed critical by immigration officials for fitting into British society’.

The underlying messages are challenging perception, encouraging thought and providing quality – “making these (theatre) doors more accessible to the people”, tells Isla Aguilar, and trying to “make them feel comfortable in here. A way to cross borders”. Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun want there to be a healthy platform for debate and expression throughout BE FESTIVAL 2017 and both “expect this year to be particularly lively and energetic”.

Togetherness, diversity, quality and opportunity, these are BE FESTIVAL watchwords – an event that despite its best intentions of being a celebration of art, has become more than that. It’s become a celebration of people, open thought and communication, of hope and potential.

BE FESTIVAL 2017 – official trailer

BE FESTIVAL runs at the Birmingham REP from 4th to 6th July. Day tickets are priced at £20-22 (with dinner) or £12-14 (without dinner). Weekly tickets are priced at £100 (with dinner) or £60 (without dinner).

For more on BE Festival, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit