Thursday 6 July

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British Enough? - Kristina Cranfeld & John Harrigan of Foolish People.

Would-be British citizens become reality TV fodder in this immersive, site-specific piece. Inspired by the Life in the UK test – a current requirement for those seeking UK citizenship – the show unpacks the concept of national identity and the extent to which a shared sense of Britishness even exists.

In the not too distant future, the market-driven ideology already dominating the western world has turned eve more extreme, with decisions currently made by government bodies handed over to ratings-hungry entertainment companies. In this regard it feels novel – while there’s an air of The Hunger Games about the premise, dystopian fiction tends to imagine overly-authoritarian regimes curtailing individual freedoms. Here, however, we have a state that’s washed its hands of all responsibility and given the market and the media absolute free reign.

Over the course of an hour, participants are rushed through the labyrinthine corridors of the REP’s backstage areas, reflecting the disorientation of being lost in a system where immigration cases can take years to process. Along the way, they’re subjected to panegyrics on British values and British greatness bordering on fascistic, and to a variety of tests designed to assess their commitment to the mythical, personified motherland.

It’s all nonsense, of course, and there’s an obvious irony to demanding friendliness and politeness from people you’re treating with contempt, or to praising British reserve and work ethic while creating a trashy TV show. But as anyone who’s ever attempted any of the “Life in the UK” questions will know, all of that is just as bogus – most actual Brits would fail abysmally. In the end, those kinds of tests are less about preparing someone for life here than they are about proving people’s willingness to conform, jumping through hoops to show just how badly they want to be part of a country that frankly, couldn’t care less about them.

Expect the unexpected, and prepare to step outside your comfort zone.

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Légende - Romain Teule

Visitors at a festival where so many different languages are spoken will doubtless be no strangers to mispronunciation, but Romain Teule takes this to a whole new level in his one-man comedy Légende.

Casting himself as linguist and sometime birdwatcher, Teule delivers a TED-style talk on his research into whether birdsong can be said to be a real language with decipherable meaning. Eventually, he concludes that it’s impossible to separate the sounds they make into discreet words or units of meaning. So far, so simple, but the twist is that along the way, his own language adopts a similar formlessness, with sounds and emphasis shifting and blurring to the point that sentences are transformed beyond all recognition.

Like a text autocorrect or poor quality voice recognition software, Teule sometimes swaps out off words like “her” for “here”, “hedgehog” for “Hitchcock”, but more often chops up and fuses together syllables and even individual phonemes, so that five words might become three or even seven.

While true, describing this as a clever performative essay deconstructing spoken language doesn’t quite do justice to how hilarious it is. Out of context video footage adds to the comedy value, but even without this, there’s a surprising amount of mileage in what on the surface seems like a very simple joke – we can’t anticipate what’s coming next. Combined with Teule’s faultless timing, exaggerated physicality and perfect deadpan delivery, it’s consistently laugh-out-loud funny.

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Solitudes – Kulunka Teatro

Following their Audience Award-winning BE Festival debut in 2011, Spanish masked theatre company Kulunka Teatro return to Birmingham with a new show about the increasingly widespread experience of growing old alone.

The plot is a relatively familiar one – an elderly woman dies, leaving her husband to live out his final years in an otherwise empty house, occasionally visited by his begrudging son and granddaughter. While they drop-in to clean his house or deliver presents and feel they’ve done their duty by him, all he really wants is someone to play cards with. Met with disinterest and impatience by his family, he’s eventually pushed to take matters into his own hands, finding friends in unlikely places, much to his son’s chagrin.

What makes the piece extraordinary, however, is the clarity of the storytelling and the depth of the characterisation. Entirely unaided by dialogue or facial expressions, three skilled performers immerse us fully in the world of their story, helped along by a well-made set and beautifully designed masks. Far from resorting to broad brushstrokes or being distanced from the audience by their masks, the trio bring multiple characters vividly to life in an intimate snapshot of modern family life.

A moving domestic drama impressing the importance of appreciating what you have before you lose it. 

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Betelgez – Ki Omos Kineitai

Dancers slide, shuffle and crawl almost inhumanly as this dark and brooding piece begins, hinting at the social inequality which becomes a major theme as it progresses. While it’s abstracted beyond character or narrative, there’s something almost cinematic about this production, with its stark lighting, arresting imagery and bleak, relentless score, in part played live on stage by a musician.

Framed around a giant see-saw, Betelgez plays with the idea of balance, the dynamics between its performers constantly shifting and changing. Excerpts of political speeches and debates in various languages are played alongside clips announcing major historical events – war, moon landings, the financial crash, the end of the Berlin Wall and more. Meanwhile, the dancers take it in turns to prop each other up, cast each other aside and suddenly tip the see-saw, sending whoever’s at the top sliding to the floor. At one point, an equilibrium seems to be reached, but only with people underneath holding the see-saw steady for those above them.

Throughout the show, there’s a constant air of danger and unrest threatening to break out, the pounding instrumentals at one point sliding into a cover of “The Guns of Brixton”. At the same time, the see-saw itself suggests a kind of childishness and simplicity inherent in our systems of power – we have a sense of the real human cost of political game-playing, and the persistent idea that someone must always be on top while others are left worthless and discarded at the bottom of the pile.

Referencing the star of its title as being on the brink of a supernova, it finally draws to a dramatic conclusion, a plastic sheet billowing out from underneath the see-saw like a wave, as though signalling a radical change to come.

Given recent world events, it's perhaps not surprising that the darkest show so far should have come out of Greece. Rich in symbolism, this is a striking visualisation of instability, the fragility of any balance of power and tipping points throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

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Obnimashki – Anna Aristarkhova

Thankfully, there’s something a little cheerier to lighten the mood again after Betelgez. In Obnimashki, a company of five performers from across Europe investigate the act of hugging. Sometimes comforting, at other times awkward or invasive, hugs are one of the most familiar and universal human gestures, but can mean a whole lot of different things depending on the nature and the context of the cuddle in question.

Over the course of a half hour, the actors demonstrate as many hugs, grabs, caresses, restraints and pats on the back as they can think of, a wrestler’s hold morphing into over-amorous coupling, or a slow dance breaking up for one partner to welcome an old friend.

When they’ve almost exhausted all possibilities, they throw it out to the viewers, at one point instructing us to embrace a fellow audience member, and finally pulling everyone together for a free-for-all group hug.

A gently playful exploration of human interaction and intimacy in all its clumsy, warm, loving, embarrassing, reassuringly messy glory.  

 

Wednesday 5 July

Day two of BE Festival 2017 speaks more directly to our lived experiences in as 21st century Europeans, with shows tackling hot topics ranging from technological oversaturation to the difficulty of dealing with big organisations and from mass migration and the impact of the recession to family interactions and masculinity in the modern world.

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The Sensemaker – Woman’s Move

A woman enters a waiting room, dressed for an interview. She’s quiet, open but not pushy, and her smile – broad but polite and without teeth – has been carefully practised to impress confidence and enthusiasm, though not too much. She stands, puts down her bag, picks it up again, sits and stands, fidgeting. Eventually a phone rings and is answered, only for an automated message to kick in telling her to wait some more.

In The Sensemaker, Woman’s Move masterfully show us how even the most minimalist, one-woman show is capable of eliciting an immediate and powerful reaction, banking on a familiar set-up to stir cringe-inducing memories. Which of us hasn’t been in a situation like this before? Our stomachs lurch in dread anticipation of the interview ahead.

Except in this case, our protagonist never actually gets through to a human being – instead proving her “patience”, “motivation” and “determination” by sitting through endless tinny rounds of “Ode to Joy”, broken up occasionally by the robotic, pre-recorded voice. So now in place of interview anxiety, we’re experiencing the exasperation of trying to deal with large, understaffed, bureaucratic institutions. In the UK, it might be HMRC, the Home Office or benefits helplines, but as the synopsis suggests, you’ll find similar systems operating throughout the EU.

The Sensemaker gently mocks the ridiculous hoops we’re expected to jump through just to get by in 21st century societies, and picks up on what can often feel like deliberate attempts to trip us up or put us off. After finding herself bored enough to start dancing along to the hold music, the woman is informed that she’s being recorded for training and improvement purposes. Later, she’s asked a series of probing, personal and entirely irrelevant questions, before being asked to demonstrate her drive and the soft skills she’s laid claim to without any clear indication of how she’s supposed to do so.

When the inevitable finally happens and the call is ended due to an error on the unnamed organisation’s part, she must choose whether to call back and go through the entire rigmarole again, or decide it isn’t worth the hassle.

A hilariously, excruciatingly relatable look at the fears and frustrations of modern life.  

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Portraits and Short Stories – Panama Pictures

Combining spectacular acrobatics with rich characterisation, Dutch company Panama Pictures paint a rich and moving portrait of family life and intergenerational relationships in this captivating show. A cast of six men aged 20-60 offer a tender and playful exploration of modern masculinity, and who we grow and develop as individuals and as a family unit over time.

A pensive grandfather figure begins the show, soon joined by a boisterous younger generation who scrap and tease each other, showing off with amazing stunts and attempting to outdo each other. Meanwhile, a middle-aged character finds himself between the two, sometimes warm and playful, at other times deep in thought or weighed down by worries.

Yet these are more than simple stereotypes. As the show progresses, distinct personalities emerge, and like the daring feats that they perform, their relationships and individual identities involve a careful balancing act which shifts and changes throughout the show. Where the oldest character begins with a quiet grace and commanding presence, by the end he seems as playful and carefree as the youngest, chasing around after the boys and watching with rapt delight and a mischievous twinkle even when he can’t join in with their games.

Often, we sense that his reflective son is just as concerned about him as he is about the lads, as though he feels he has to be the grown-up for everyone. Yet even he has his turn to be dependent on his family – quite literally carried and supported when overwhelmed by grief and sadness. It’s in this moment that perhaps the most rambunctious of the boys has a chance to show his tender, responsible side.

That said, even when their play is at its roughest, we sense the safety of an underlying love and trust between the brothers. It might not always be demonstrative, but their deep intimacy and understanding of each other is no less real and apparent for that.

A visually and emotionally stunning piece of work.  

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Everything is Okay – Marco D’Agostin

Bombarding us with a steady stream of popular culture references through a combination of spoken work, music and choreographed routines, Marco D’Agostin attempts to capture the information and sensory overload of the digital age in his one-man show Everything is Okay.

The show begins with a quickfire series of lines from TV, film, rap and pop music in an array of different languages, all perfectly recited in minute detail by D’Agostin. In the second section of the show, he goes on to mimic the familiar movements of performers and characters across all genres in an extended and surprisingly fluid dance sequence. In each case, the transition from one quotation to the next is seamless, each coming in such rapid succession that there’s scarcely time to register them before the next one comes along. At first it’s funny, but over time, it starts to feel a little wearing.

Yet although it’s obviously too much to process, there’s something mesmerising about his performance and the skill with which each fragment has been put together, irresistibly drawing us in and keeping us hooked even as our attention wavers. Add this to the fact that few individual audience members could boast the cross-cultural knowledge to appreciate every reference, and the show as a whole becomes a striking metaphor for instant entertainment-induced inertia – in particular the action of scrolling endlessly through social media feeds, only taking in about half of what we see, yet still unable to switch off and look away.

It’s not just the escapism and validation we look for online which suggests that, contrary to the show’s title, everything is not really okay. There’s also the (often deliberately) addictive nature of many sites, and the blurring of boundaries that can effectively deny us proper downtime. Nowadays, we’ve grown so used to living with the tech that even on the odd occasion we’re not staring at a screen, our brains are still flitting about just as restlessly, unable to settle or focus on a single idea for long.

As D’Agostin solemnly exits the stage to ominous-sounding music, we’re left with nothing but a flickering rectangle of bluish light on the ground. 

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My Country is What the Sea Doesn’t Want – Casa da Esquina

The final show of the night is a more straightforward piece of storytelling, documenting the personal journey of its Portuguese creator, Ricardo Correia, alongside similar tales collected from fellow migrants since his arrival in the UK.

Like many, Correia left his home nation in search of the opportunities sorely lacking there. Hit particularly hard by the recession, Portugal has been faced with extensive funding cuts and a dearth of jobs worse than that in the UK, exacerbating the deprivation already left behind by the dictatorship which lasted until the mid-70s. Correia had no particular reason to choose Britain – it just seemed as good “possible country” as any, so he flew out, alone and with nothing but a bag of luggage and a book of poetry.

Inevitably though, it wasn’t so easy as arriving here, finding a job and living happily ever after. For one thing, Britain has its own raft of socio-economic problems to deal with – the jobs market and money for public services are dwindling here as well. There’s also the (growing) ignorance about and suspicion of foreigners, who are all too often blamed for the fall-out from domestic policy. Correia is baffled by the customs officer who has no idea why so many Portuguese people are flocking here.

But perhaps most difficult of all, there’s the homesickness to contend with, and all the daily struggles to fit in that left Correia crying on the tube. As he explains, the show is named after a poem by Ruy Belo, a Portuguese poet in exile whose literary yearnings for home help open up discussions about cultural differences, as well as the anxiety and isolation of arriving empty-handed in a place where both the language and social customs are alien to you. It’s hard enough for Europeans – how much harder must it be for those coming from even further afield?

Despite his own lack of confidence in his mastery of English, Correia grapples admirably with the language that he’s still learning, making his case clearly and building up an immediate rapport with the audience as he interacts with them throughout – at one point even inviting a couple of non-UK natives to join him up on stage and talk about themselves.

A celebration of diversity and free movement delivered with real warmth. 

 

Tuesday 4 July

After the anxieties hanging heavy in the air around the EU referendum at last year’s event, BE Festival 2017 begins in a much lighter vein, with physical comedy and abstract routines dominating the opening night programme. Will the emphasis on silliness and having fun continue through the week? Based on tonight's offerings, at least, it's already clear there are a lot of different ways of interpreting the theme of “Crossing Borders”.

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Animal Religion – Indomador

Remember that old eBay advert that cut between different people showing off their online purchases? It ended with a rubber chicken, which is probably just about the only bit of it you’ll recall clearly - all the other featured items have been long since forgotten.

The point of this story is that there seems to be something just inherently funny (and oddly memorable) about rubber chickens – something that Animal Religion have clearly cottoned onto in “Indomador”, quite possibly the weirdest current one-man show this side of the Atlantic (Then again, who knows? We’ve got another four days left of BE 2017…). With its surreal set-ups and sharp transitions, it’s a little like something you might stumble across on YouTube late at night, fitting in with the “Crossing Borders” theme by defying conventional stage logic – even questioning the very idea of what theatre is supposed to be. Among (many) other things, it features the unlikely spectacle of a man in a rubber chicken mask dancing and flapping around with rubber chickens strapped to his chest and limbs, creating a crazed chorus of squawks and squeaks in various pitches.

Slapstick puppetry (of a sort) tumbles into masked physical theatre, acrobatic stunts, magic tricks, dancing and a little bit of audience interaction as the show explores and blurs the boundary between animal and human – often explicitly, as when its star embodies both horse and rider at the same time.

With its toy animals and dolls, dressing up and animal role play, it’s at times like watching a child entertaining himself. Yet at other points it’s also deeply unsettling – the image of a bull wielding a meat cleaver isn’t one you’re likely to forget in a hurry, for example. It’s also skilfully executed – not only in the remarkable control displayed in all of its amazing feats, but also in terms of how the show itself is structured. Indomador plays with audience expectations, manipulating us as easily as its articulated dolls and stretchy chickens with a combination of delayed resolutions, false endings and sudden shifts in tone. What looks set to be a Sweeney Todd-style bloodbath becomes a fashion show, and then a parody of Goya’s grotesque Saturn painting. It’s basically impossible to anticipate what’s coming next.

Is there a point to it all? There’s a lot of mocking of daft things that humans do and how seriously we tend to take ourselves. But ultimately the question here seems to be whether theatre really needs a point. Avoiding politics, morality, philosophy and even narrative, Indomador takes performance at face value as a glorified game of pretend, stripping everything back to simple entertainment and perhaps putting us all in touch with our own animal sides along the way.

It did slightly make me wish I’d picked the veggie option for dinner, mind.

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Palmyra – Bertrand Lesca & Nasi Voutsas

Following their acclaimed UK tour of “Eurohouse”, creative duo Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas return with a new show subtly tapping into international politics and contemporary culture. Working between the UK and Greece left them ideally placed to critique the European project from its margins in their previous piece. This time, meanwhile, they turn their attention outside EU borders and towards the Middle East, inspired by the destruction of historical sites in Syria.

This is only a starting point, however. With characteristically astute observations and wry humour, Lesca and Voutsas move seamlessly, the well-matched pair move seamlessly between commenting on large- and small-scale human interactions, with all their pettiness, pride, one-upmanship and pointless acts of vengeance.

Enamoured of his own creativity, artistic taste and cleverness, “Bert” smugly derides Nasi as stupid and uncultured when he attempts to speak, echoing the snide, belittling tone of conversations we see happening online every day. But while he presents himself as the reasonable party and paints his partner as a dangerous lunatic, beneath Bert’s thin veneer of “civilisation” is someone just as much an animal as anyone else. When crockery is smashed and his carefully choreographed dance routine is interrupted, he becomes enraged, lashing out disproportionately against the culprit, real or perceived. Is he justified in getting so upset about a work of art? Or do we feel more for Nasi, insulted, threatened and abused until he snaps and sabotages everything? While Nasi’s actions might be equally unproductive, it’s hard not to feel like Bert’s gaslighting would drive anyone demented.

Verbally and physically, the battle escalates, running round in circles like a Twitter row or all-out war. A moment in which a hammer-wielding Nasi at first looks just as “mental” as Bert makes him out to be looks rather different in the light of video evidence that he’s already been subjected to the same by his supposed victim. Meanwhile, clouds of ceramic shards and white dust fill the air as boxes of shattered plates are violently emptied out across the floor and swept at furniture and people, each man taking turns to get revenge on the other for his latest act of aggression with another of his own. “Romeo slew him, he slew Mercutio; Who now the price of his dear blood doth owe?”

The resulting mess looks rather like the consequence of a bombs to stop bombs policy; like the absurdity of fighting in pursuit of peace. It’s very clever, visually dramatic and extremely funny, but also pretty depressing. Will we ever break the cycle? 

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Aerobics! A Ballet in 3 Acts – Paula Rosolen / Haptic Hide

You’ve heard of found poetry before, but until now you might never have thought about found choreography. Concluding the Tuesday night programme, this strangely hypnotic “three-act ballet” recasts exercise regimes in a new light, finding beauty in the unlikeliest of places.

Sporting high, swishy ponytails and clad in uniform chunky trainers and shiny shorts, a group of dancers take their cues from the 80s fad for aerobics. Moving rhythmically as one with no accompanying sound or music, they stretch, jog, fall, warm up and workout in various different ways. Over time, they start to arrange themselves in intricate formations, creating kaleidoscopic patterns as their brightly coloured outfits shift and collide.

There’s humour, too – keeling over suddenly while everyone else continues is worked into the routines. There are also moments when the only male dancer of the five on stage (a sixth member of the company was unable to make it to the UK), poses exaggeratedly to shouts of “sexy, sexy”, as if following a work-out instruction video.

A novel and interesting way of exploring the art and elegance of the everyday.