Birmingham’s Essential Entertainment Guide
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Saturday 25 June
The Vortex Agitator – Cris Blanco
Solo theatre meets low-budget B-movie in this off-the-wall romp by Cris Blanco. Armed with a handheld camera, a tripod, a skateboard, a pair of boots and a few crude backdrops, the Spanish actor/director demonstrates the magic of cinema live on stage, playing with camera angles, perspective, electric fans and other tricks of the trade. As she assembles a film before our eyes, we get to see both the result, projected onto a big screen, and how it's put together, by watching her on stage.
As if all this wasn't meta enough, the film itself tells the story of a would-be director who can't decide on a genre for her movie. After a restless night turning over the question and combining various ideas in her head, she wakes to find that reality has become just as confused as her dreams.
Stylistically inventive and very, very funny.
Theseus Beefcake – PanicLab
What does it mean to be "masculine"? After a potential date on Grindr asked him whether or not he considered himself to be so, Joseph Mercier began pondering this labyrinthine question. Enlisting the help of a friend – the straight, but not so “straight-acting” Jordan Lennie – he embarked on a mission to find his own answers: hitting the gym, watching football, drinking a lot of beer, and even turning to Greek mythology for a more Classical perspective. In the process, he delved deep into his own psyche, dredging up formative events from his life and confronting his own regrets and anxieties.
Combining acting, singing, confessional-style storytelling and even a bit of wrestling, Theseus Beefcake shows a personal validation through the confronting of inner demons and the development of a more sophisticated understanding of others. The hero and the monster go head to head, only to find they're not so different after all.
Pass the Salt – BE Next
Developed by BE Festival's youth theatre arm, BE Next, this immersive piece is performed around the tables at dinner time. It's primarily an energetic dance piece, and while the performers play waiters who initially engage a little with some of the diners at the ends of the tables, there's no story or characters as such. It's nice to see local young people involved in the festival, and having had just a week to rehearse, they do a great job – there's a tremendous enthusiasm and a nice ending where they perform from the theatre auditorium while we watch them from our tables on the stage. A fuller use of the dining area (using the side aisles as well as the central one, and gathering at both ends of the stage instead of just one) would have made it easier for everyone to see and hear what was happening.
Quintetto – TiDA
TiDA's Marco Chenevier ends this year's festivities with the welcome return of his winning show from BE Festival 2015. Commenting on financial austerity and the lack of funding for art and science, the show is dedicated to the Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who campaigned against cuts to research right up until her death at the age of 103.
Chenevier had it all planned out – a show that would honour her memory in spectacular fashion. Unfortunately, without reimbursement on offer, the tech and lighting crew have disappeared, as have his co-performers. So how do you build a show without a budget or a team? Naturally, you ask the audience.
Mixing political commentary with farce and an anarchic, DIY spirit, Quintetto is at once a hands-on insight into the making of a production, and a hysterically funny comedy that's unlike anything you've seen before.
Friday 24 June
Following the morning's referendum result, BE Festival gets more openly topical, with a moving speech from festival organisers Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun.
“We must use all our energy – and I know there is a lot of energy in this room – to show everyone that a better Europe is possible,” said Aguilar.
Despite the fact the festival was programmed before they even knew about the referendum, the first show on the list for Friday is almost uncannily fitting...
Power to the People – BE Mix
Created during a scratch-style residency by a group of performers selected from last year's festival, Power to the People is a very clever, thought-provoking critque of democracy, hypocrisy and bias. Over the last few days, a couple of “candidates” have been out campaigning and flyering to win support for their respective projects. The show opens with a mini-election where we're invited to choose whether we want to see a show led by a single director, or one devised collaboratively by a team of five. All told, it's hardly a landslide victory, but it's perhaps not surprising that the Five Directors Project wins.
But the voting doesn't end there! Next we're asked some tougher questions concerning what we think about democracy and about BE Festival. Whatever the decision reached, the performers' aim is to challenge the audience's basic assumptions.
“Congratulations!” one exclaims. “You have decided that democracy – the only power system most of you have ever known – is the best one!”
Are we right? Are they able to change our minds? Either way, what does that say about us and about democracy in general.
This style of on-the-spot polls and choice of outcomes doesn't make things easy for the performers, who haven't had that long to put the show together. With that in mind, it's remarkably well-executed. Astute, challenging and also very funny.
In Girum Imus Nocte (Et Consumimur Igni) – Aldes (Roberto Castello)
Known for creating experimental dance pieces that reflect on modern life, Roberto Castello's Aldes give us a bleak view of the world today in In Girum Imus Nocte (Et Consumimur Igni), which translates as “We Go Around at Night (Consumed by Fire).
Rectangles of moody grey light appear and disappear, revealing dancers clad in black, looking like early morning commuters as they aimlessly walk on the spot, faces as blank and grey as the set around them. Jerky, spasmodic movements are reminiscent of stop-frame animations, rewound footage or robotics, while a noisy, repetitive soundtrack brings to mind clockwork, trains and ticking clocks. As the lights come on and off, days seem to pass, each one much like another.
For most of the show, the group behaves almost as a single entity – walking together, dancing together at some kind of nightclub or concert, investigating something out of the ordinary together, and shouting angrily together at some unknown event. This mob mentality becomes frightening when we see the penalties of transgressing: at one point, a man rolls around, isolated from the group, bars of light on the floor hinting at some kind of imprisonment. When he apparently dies, the others show no restraint in demonstrating their contempt for him. Yet at the same time, they seem strangely isolated, at one point flailing madly and kicking out desperately within the confines of their own little boxes of light.
There's sex, fighting, pornography and a race to some unknown goal or destination, but what we take away from all this more than anything is a sense of sheer exhaustion, with the performers at one point collapsing in a weary heap together. In the end, there seems to be a breath of fresh air – but will it last?
At times blackly comic, at other times just dark, this is powerful stuff, but won't do much to lighten your mood if you're already feeling pessimistic about the future.
Merci, Pardon – Cie HappyFace
One young man tentatively heads towards a stranger dancing in a club. At first the second man ignores him, then stares in disbelief at his audacity. Finally, he agrees to a dance.
Merci, Pardon races through the early stages of a romance, tenderly dealing with the yearning for love, the awkwardness of first approaches, and the gradual process of getting to know someone. As the story unfolds, this budding relationship blossoms: what begins as one-way desire ends as a perfect partnership. But what's unique about this show is the way it tells its little tale, through a beautifully choreographed combination of traditional theatre, dance and juggling. The result feels more profound and universal than you'd imagine: love, it shows us, is more than simply lust, it's the building up of something greater over time.
You Had To Be There – Uncanny Theatre
Given the slightly dampened mood at the festival in the light of recent events, it's fortunate that the final show of the night is one to send us out with a bang. You Had To Be There describes itself as “not a performance, but an experience”. On the stage is a flipchart showing a list of key components important to making an event memorable – things like emotional engagement, social experience, sensory stimulation and documentation. Uncanny Theatre run through all of them, attempting to tick each one of the list in fun and inventive ways before their time runs out. Their totally-not-ambitious-at-all goal is to make this the most memorable experience of our lives.
The show may or may not be the most memorable thing that's ever happened to you, but either way, it's certainly not something anyone who sees it is likely to forget in a hurry. Over the course the course of the allocated half hour, we eat sweets, shake hands, take some photos, go on Facebook, and do a lot of shouting “Vagina banana you”. Sounds amazing, right? No? I guess you had to be there.
Thursday 23 June
Things Easily Forgotten – Xavier Bobés
The creator of this show specifically requests that details of the show not be revealed, but safe to say, Things Easily Forgotten is perhaps the most moving and intimate piece at this year's BE Festival. Performed in a tiny room, the show sees Xavier Bobés take just five viewers at a time on a personalised journey through the second half of the 20th century. There's a filmic quality to the production, a lot of mystery and a little bit of magic. Things Easily Forgotten serves as a potent and timely reminder of how recent events that can seem a world away still are.
Things We'd Love To See On Stage – Los Bárbaros
Doing more or less exactly what it says on the tin, Los Bárbaros' Things We'd Love To See On Stage is a crazy mash-up of random, unconnected “stuff”. Sometimes funny, sometimes topical, often surprising and mostly very silly, Things We'd Love To See On Stage is almost daft enough to make Reload seem sensible and straightforward. At BE Festival, its most poignant moment comes when a representative from the audience is invited to name something they'd like to see on stage. The nominated person chooses “Unity”, and compost “maps” of Birmingham, England, Britain and Europe are merged together.
Vacuum – Cie Philippe Saire
Hailing from Switzerland, Cie Philippe Saire's Vacuum is an stunning, choreographed exploration of light, shadow and the human body. From the total darkness between two cold, neon strip lights, shapes slowly emerge, gradually taking form as body parts. Rorschach inkblot-like patterns shift across torsos, and constituent parts, seemingly disconnected from any unified whole, appear as sculptural forms and painterly still images. Perspective is challenged and confused when heads emerge, eventually returning the audience's mesmerised gazes. While it perhaps feels more like a visual art installation than a theatrical performance, it's certainly striking and quite unlike anything you'll have seen before.
We Are Brontë – Publick Transport
The first of two shows at this year's BE Festival to take loose inspiration from classic texts, the homegrown We Are Brontë is an irreverent response to the Brontë sisters' classic novels. Rather than adapting any specific story, the show superficially aims to capture the angst-ridden gothic mood of their works, comically undercutting it with a very British, understated sort of humour. In the end, the show becomes less a travesty of the Brontës' work than it is a parody of the art of theatre-making itself.
Hamlet – CollettivO CineticO
Auditions, but not as you know them. Taking its cues from TV talent shows, this Italian show pits three local contestants – faces bizarrely concealed by paper bags – against each other in a series of dramatic challenges, with the winner chosen to play the part of Hamlet in a production we never get to see. “Votes” in this “election” are calculated on the basis of applause volume for each candidate, and between each round, we're entertained with choreographed sequences performed by three brawny, shirtless men in tights and fencing masks. Challenges include performing pre-prepared monologues and enacting all the directions Shakespeare gives for Hamlet in the entire play (there aren't many). It's weird and wacky, but easily believable as the kind of thing you'd see on TV these days. A fun reflection on the equal silliness of high and low culture.
Wednesday 22 June
Stuff – Sean Kempton
Getting to the heart of what it means to be human, Sean Kempton's solo stuff traces a journey through life by way of love, lust, fear, rain, light and fingers. Using humour and more than a little audience participation, Kempton tenderly examines our hopes, needs and anxieties, highlighting the superficially mundane and often unrecognised yet remarkably beautiful things that unite us all.
A former Cirque Du Soleil performer, the UK-based Kempton mixes mime, clowning, physical theatre and even a bit of dance in this largely silent show. Three pre-recorded interviews – one with a child, one with an 83-year-old, and one with a scientist – are also played over the action as Kempton attempts to (sometimes literally) dissect love.
Touching, playful and instantly accessible to audiences of all ages.
Situation With An Outstretched Arm – Oliver Zahn
Straddling the divide between art and criticism, Oliver Zahn's intensely self-reflexive Situation with an Outstretched Arm explores the history of the gesture that has come to be known as the “Hitler salute” - its artistic origins, political appropriations, and various meanings, along with some recent attempts to reclaim it from its dark past.
Over an excruciating half hour, a solo performer, Isobell, attempts to keep her arm outstretched, positioning herself at various points on the stage to represent figures using the gesture in paintings, posters, photographs, propaganda and more from the 18th century onwards. By the end of it, she's shaking with the effort – a palpable demonstration of the discomfort and unnaturalness of of the pose that draws gasps from the audience as she doggedly continues.
Examined so minutely, it's hard to imagine a more perfect fascist expression: viewed objectively, it's a graceful, muscular shape, at once beautiful and menacing, rather like the futurist art tied so inextricably to the rise of fascism. Yet it's also punishing and unnervingly distant – the German voiceover explains how in Italy, it became a replacement greeting for the more conventional handshake, which was banned, under the guise of promoting hygiene and respect, but on some level in the hope that enforcing outward fascism would encourage inner acceptance of its values.
What's most interesting is the point this performative essay makes about the inseparability of the gestures artistic and political applications. The gesture was seen as a “Roman salute”, a way for Italians to reflect on their imperial history (although this was a fabrication), and was first applied politically by the rebel artist-prince Gabriele D'Annunzio. It would later take on its most famous connotations in association with another artist-politician.
Today, the salute is banned in Germany, with the exception of scientific and artistic uses. It's almost ironic, since art has always been so central to its use as a political tool. One might argue that the continued taboo surrounding it is an acknowledgement of its power (like avoiding a name for fear of what the person represented), of its hold over our collective imagination. Is it right, as Jonathan Meese has recently attempted, to set it free of its political trappings? Or, in the face of a frightening resurgence of aggressive nationalism in Europe which has seen it recycled in similar contexts, is it right to be afraid of it?
A fascinating and provocative deconstruction of the relationship between art and politics channeled through a controversial gesture.
Transnational Artist Heidi Blumenfeld – Andrej Tomse
Transnational Artist Heidi Blumenfeld lives for her art, but recognises that it's not all fun and games. An artist must be a diplomat, must take risks, and must make mistakes. But what's the art that she's referring to – is it juggling or drag?
Heidi isn't afraid to get things wrong, at times wowing us with her impressive skills, at other times shrugging off her slip-ups with a cheeky pout and wink. Flamboyantly flaunting its own kitschy-ness, this cabaret-style solo show aims to redefine high art, celebrating circus and gender-bending in the context of a “serious” theatre.
Reload – Teatro Sotterraneo
Man walks into a bar, forgets what he went in for, and walks back out again. This isn't actually a scene from Teatro Sotterraneo's Reload, but it pretty much captures the tone. Exploring the subject of the diminishing attention spans and contstant distractions of the digital age, Reload is a thrilling, lightning-fast, side-splitting satire with a heart of goldfish.
The tonal shifts, scene changes and comings and goings in this show are incessant and dancing. One character asks another for help with something, then drops the task and vegetables. Each time a performer holds up a piece of paper displaying the hyperlink symbol (two links in a chain), audience members can stand up to “click” the link, activating a whole new scene which may or may not interact with what's already swimming through the audience.
A glorious evocation of the internet with all its rabbit warren-like wonder – the good, the bad, the sexy and the dancing fish-man. Bonkers, brilliant, ingenious – if I told you any more about it I'd have to impersonate a gospel singer.
Tuesday 21 June
Piccole Donne – TiDA
It's been said that from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step, and it's one that last year's BE Festival winners TiDA boldly take in their new show Piccole Donne, premiering at BE Festival 2016. The Italian physical theatre company possess a rare, remarkable gift in their ability to successfully navigate a path between unnerving, visceral imagery and laugh-out-loud comedy.
The show begins with light projections on a translucent show, with white noise and text referencing the chaos at the dawn of time. An apocalyptic chorus strikes up, the lights change and the curtain “dissolves”. Behind it, tiny points of light flicker into being, slowly revealing first disconnected body parts, then whole, unclothed bodies writhing and twisting around an otherworldly landscape composed of shapeless forms draped in white sheets. Strip lights flicker in lightning-like, brilliant bursts, while shadows play across the set, which seems to shift and change with them.
There's a slow evolution of sorts, as the figures – two female, one male – begin to stand upright and dress themselves – rather startlingly in big, flouncy, white meringues of wedding dresses. This is where things start to get really weird: paper plates are thrown around like confetti, plastic cups trodden on, and the final image in this first part of the show is of a spotlight picking out an empty chair.
That's when it all changes, and everything you thought you were watching seems to melt away. Almost everything, anyway. Text projections reassure us not to worry if we haven't understood a thing so far, but what follows is hardly less bizarre: as the writing says, “In the beginning there was chaos. Things did not get a lot better.” The screen is raised, the whole set cleared away, and now we see the three “brides” run and dance around – playful, child-like, even anarchic. Eventually we learn that they're waiting for a wedding, though the bridegroom never materialises. A last-minute purchase, a hysterical emotional breakdown, a Chinese takeaway, and some party games later, and the show is over, closing on a blindfolded performer dodging flying plates and stepping over cups as she reaches out to grab her friends in a game of blind man's buff. Context is all: we instantly recognise her sightless groping along with the disposable crockery from the show's earlier, darker phase, but interpret them wildly differently based on what we've just seen.
It's undeniably weird, but also rather wonderful, transforming apparently disconnected pictures and movements into a kind of feminist statement, an exploration of cultural expectations and the potential for liberation. While the message might not be a new one, and there's a familiarity to some of the images, the way that they've been assembled results in something fresh and constantly surprising – not to mention a lot of fun!
Collective Loss of Memory – DOT504
From a show about restrictive femininity to another on the dangers of hypermasculinity, fluid shifts between humour and suffering seem to be the order of the evening. In Collective Loss of Memory, Czech company DOT504 blur the boundaries between the violent, the comic and the erotic, demonstrating the frightening fragility of such distinctions in our cultural conceptions of “manliness”.
The show starts with two men wrestling on the ground while a third looks on serenely until, as in Piccole Donne, the tone is suddenly undercut with a surprise admission, “This part of the show is very physical and intellectual, but now...” Now we see the performers introduce themselves with all the sophistication of ten-year-old schoolboys. They show off, mock and hit each other, obsess over sex and mess around with a penis-shaped sock prop. In this context, it seems fairly harmless and we laugh, but it's a fine line between teasing and bullying, happy slaps and real violence, and sexual aggression in theory and in practice, the implications of which the show goes on to explore. In laughing off this early misbehaviour, are we in some way complicit in what it might later lead to?
Slapstick, dialogue and direct audience interaction are woven between stunning dance sections. There's a breathtaking precision and control to the performers' movements – a simultaneous strength and lightness as they jump through hoops created by each other's arms and catch each other in mid-air, instantly still. It's all fun and games, perhaps, but also highlights their immense physical power. During a later sequence, one of the men recites a chilling description of what happens to the brain and body during an act of extreme violence or murder: the sense of inner oneness, the loss of ego and control, the idea that nothing makes one feel more alive than holding death in one's hands.
Finally, the performers line up in front of a microphone, taking it in turns to paint a picture of a frantic scene, telling a sort of story, line by line. Told in an abstracted way, it's difficult to get a handle on – funny, even. That is, until we get to see the shocking footage they've been describing.
Urgent, devastating theatre that tackles dangerous social constructions of gender head-on.
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