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Featuring performances that are both wacky and thought-provoking, BE FESTIVAL has become a staple part of the Midlands’ arts scene since its premier in 2010. As the 2019 event is the 10th edition of the festival, audiences have been promised a programme more daring and innovative than ever...
The first performance of Tuesday evening was Sotterraneo’s Dies Irae: 5 Episodes Around The End Of The Species. In line with this year’s festival theme of ‘archive and memory’, Dies Irae explored human perceptions of the past, present and hypothetical future.
The four-strong cast, made up of Rebeca Cardeña Gómez, Jesús Irimia, Luis Maesso and Álvaro Subiés, took the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride that was sometimes gripping, sometimes tragic and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.
Beginning with a deconstructed crime scene - which was surprisingly graphic considering it was created using only red paint - and ending with a rather eerie episode in which the cast shuffled over a black tarpaulin, the performance was peppered with audience participation, from the ‘reverse auction’ of the Seven Wonders Of The World, to an invitation to send the performers a ‘What if?’ question via text.
Each episode saw a new piece of flooring rolled out over the last. Various props from previous scenes were left underneath, representing the signs we leave behind and the opposing types of archaeology: digging up the past and burying the present.
Conflictingly poignant and lighthearted, Dies Irae was a glorious combination of complex ideas and accessible performance for which the company deserve the highest praise.
After dinner came the evening’s second instalment: Tom Cassani’s I Promise You That Tonight. Cassani was last year’s BE Festival winner, so this performance of his latest work was bound to impress.
Blurring the line between what’s real and what’s a hoax, I Promise You That Tonight combined visual illusion, showmanship and scepticism - inviting the audience to question what it means to believe.
Brandishing himself a liar, Cassani advocated the importance of being wary of those who make extraordinary claims, using sleight of hand to leave the audience questioning what was actually real in his new show.
Often the eerie silence, combined with Cassani’s deliberately perfunctory performance, made the show uncomfortable viewing, and yet it was impossible to look away - especially when Cassani was rubbing his face into a pile of broken glass! Though at some points I found the prose a little tiresome, I could appreciate its thought-provoking purpose and I especially enjoyed the snippets of historical information - such as the origin of the phrase ‘hocus pocus’.
Friday evening’s BE FESTIVAL programme commenced with Edurne Rubio’s Light Years Away - an intriguing, immersive cave exploration experienced without leaving the comfort of Birmingham Rep’s studio.
The piece started in complete darkness, with the clever use of film, surround-sound and torches really making the audience feel as if the wet cave ceiling could drip onto their heads at any moment. I found the opening few minutes in particular completely relaxing.
Sat in the dark just listening to the sounds of the largely undisturbed caves made all the stresses and strains of the working week fade from memory. It was the most perfect, refreshing way to start a production that would slowly take a more scientific and political turn.
The journey through the caves of Ojo Guareña in Northern Spain was part-documentary, part-theatre. Following a team of cave explorers, it flicked between documenting their discoveries in the mid-20th century and focusing on their most recent reunion visit. The audience genuinely felt a part of the awe-inspiring discoveries made, as if they were happening in real time.
I especially liked the interesting turn the narrative took after the discovery of bare human footprints in the mud, which dated back to the Bronze Age. This opened up the opportunity for Edurne Rubio to tell her band of cave-tour guests about the first modern man to enter the caves, and about the caves’ significance during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.
Particularly gruesome was the use of the caves to dispose of bodies, both animal and human. People would drop bodies into the caves through holes in the ground, creating a pile of corpses and, eventually of course, skeletons. The most poignant element of the whole show, however, was saved until the end. The closing song, Gallo Rojo, Gallo Negro (Red Rooster, Black Rooster) commended those who fought Franco in the civil war, and sent shivers down the spine.
I did feel that Light Years Away was longer than it should’ve been. The middle section, which slowly built up to the discovery of the prints, was far too long, and the audience started to lose interest a little. Overall, though, Light Years Away was redeemed by its many other merits and made for a truly unique audience experience.
Our second treat on Friday came from returning artist Anna Biczók. Precedents To A Potential Future was an interesting dance and spoken word piece unlike anything I’d seen before.
The production’s multiple layers of narrative made for a quaint and humorous experience that played with perspective and repetition. Biczók danced with great control and technical ability, while the frank delivery of her lecture certainly tickled the audience.
I was, however, left largely underwhelmed by the piece. Yes, the narrative had numerous layers, but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. While I think this was part of the point of the show, given the title, it felt unfinished and constricted. Again, I suppose this was part of what was being explored - audience and performer experience - but it left me feeling confused and unfulfilled.
Finally, we saw Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas’ piece, The End - an aptly titled performance with which to finish the night. Given that Lesca and Voutsas are among BE FESTIVAL’s most celebrated and successful alumni, the production was perhaps the most anticipated of the evening.
Having presented their internationally renowned show, Palmyra, at the 2017 edition of the festival - a show which continues to tour alongside two partner pieces - they certainly had a lot to live up to with The End…
I was not disappointed. The dual narratives of the end of the Earth and the end of Lesca and Voutsas’ collaboration intertwined perfectly with the help of fabulous projection work. The expression and emotion throughout the performance was breathtaking, and I could feel the passion both for dance and for the planet in pretty much every single movement.
This multimedia dance was exactly what it promised to be: a celebration of life.
I was blown away by A Land Full Of Heroes at BE FESTIVAL’s Saturday matinee. Out of the four pieces I saw from the festival’s programme this year, this was most definitely my highlight. I was engrossed in the story of Romanian writer Carmen-Francesca Banciu and fascinated by the twists and turns this part-journalistic, part-performance piece took as it moved from communist Romania to post-Wall Berlin.
A Land Full Of Heroes is a compelling account of Banciu’s life. The performance jumped to great effect between an interview or spoken word piece and a theatrical recreation of her novels. Scenes from Banciu’s books, following protagonist Maria Maria (who was based largely on the author’s own feelings, thoughts and life events), were vividly presented throughout this exceptional pseudo-documentary.
Maria Maria and young Carmen-Francesca Banciu were performed with great theatrical prowess and even greater passion by Banciu’s daughter. Sometimes it was difficult to tell where the character of Maria Maria ended and the personal accounts from Banciu began, but this only added to the fluid and mesmerising nature of the piece.
As a whole, both Banciu women created the perfect atmosphere to mark the transition from Bucharest to Berlin one year after the fall of the Wall. The mixture of apprehension, fear, excitement and eventual confusing freedom felt by those fighting against the ideologies and persecution of the Romanian communist regime was beautifully conveyed to the audience.
Use of film and camera work in the show was exquisite. At previous BE Festivals, live film-making was sometimes a distraction. Here, though, the projection only added to the show’s effectiveness, allowing the audience to become even more immersed in the story unfolding on stage.
A Land Full Of Heroes appeared, on the surface at least, to constitute a simple layering of narratives to recreate Banciu’s life in performance. The reality, however, was somewhat different. The show gave its audience a whole lot more than they might have expected. It was the fact that the production was so understated that ensured it made such an incredible impact. This very much goes to prove that showy effects, a huge cast and dazzling costumes only go so far, and certainly aren’t the be all and end all of great theatrical productions.
I’ve never witnessed a more effective portrayal of life before and after communism, revolution or violence than A Land Full Of Heroes. It truly was a triumph.
Overall BE FESTIVAL 2019 rating: ****
BE FESTIVAL continues to be at the forefront of the European arts scene, presenting some of the most unique and ground-breaking performances on our continent.
There is always a real buzz in the air around the day’s proceedings, with the festival ‘hub’ providing a cosy, yet lively, and altogether welcoming atmosphere. Dinner on the main stage is a delight too; both the food and the company proved to be thoroughly enjoyable.
We picked out Dies Irae: 5 Episodes Around The End Of The Species and A Land Full of Heroes as our stand-out highlights of BE FESTIVAL 2019. However, we must applaud both the artists and everyone involved at BE FESTIVAL for their continued efforts, making this wonderful festival the delight that it is today.
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