The BE Festival is a gathering of contemporary European performance and takes place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre; when my mate Nicky and I arrive we are told to go around the back of the building. It’s a strange, deserted alleyway that we walk down at first, and then, turning a corner, we see a smoking enclosure on the pavement filled with women wearing tea dresses accessorized edgily and men in retro blazers. We look at each other, at our own edgily accessorized tea dresses, and laugh. I say, ‘I think we have found our people.’ And then we talk about the strangeness of the urge to join a tribe, how mysterious a thing it is to be compelled to align, to dress this way and not another, how complex are the patterns of society as they weave together. I have always had complicated feelings about this urge in myself, because I want to love everybody, to align with everybody. The theme of the festival this year is Democracy, and so this question of how we align, malign, agree, dissent and weave together was running through the various artistic explorations in many different fascinating and complex ways.
The prevailing aesthetic of the festival is this edgy, retro style: the festival Hub was the massive loading bay at the back of the theatre, which was dressed with curated selections of antique furniture clustered cosily in a large seating area with a bar, and antique bric-a-brac adorning the wide corridors leading off to the studio theatre and the main theatre stage. A mixture of audience, performers and festival workers were drinking, lounging and talking in the sofas. A pale rose chaise longue was enjoyably incongruous against the concrete floor and breeze block bricks of this backstage turned into a new sort of theatre. The democracy-themed visual arts installations occupied space like wild oases, where people clustered to observe and participate.
The first show of the night was Correction by the VerTeDance contemporary dance company from the Czech Republic. The piece began with the stage in darkness and beautiful melodic electronic music with voices singing in harmony, accompanied by a live clarinet ensemble called the Clarinet Factory.
Seven dancers were revealed when the stage lights came up, standing in a straight line, all wearing the same brown workman’s boots and dressed in casual street clothes. The introductory music faded into silence, and the dancers began to move, with their feet locked onto the stage floor in their identical boots, swaying into each other like a Newton’s Cradle, passing the energy of motion along the line, recalling the properties of physics, the finite energies of material reality – but also the way we as people touch and influence each other with our human energy.
The dance would go on to explore the different patterns of our energetic interactions, first in sweet and funny moments of capitulation and rebellion to the charge being passed along, and then in increasingly disturbing displays of aggression. This was a performance that struck a deep chord with all of the people I spoke to on this night of the festival, and I think this was because it revealed patterns of behaviour operating between all of us, all of the time, much of the time unconsciously, and these patterns of energy operate on both micro and macro levels of society.
In one part of the dance, one of the dancers was pushed down and left to struggle back up on his own, and then once he was back up he lashed out viciously to the next person along, in a complete tracery of the dynamic of recycled violence. This is something that nations do (Israel, I’m looking at you, bra) and that families, friends, politicians, workmates, lovers and strangers do. And then the dance takes the expenditure of energy on conflict to its extreme point, and all the dancers fight each other violently until finally they are exhausted, spent and lifeless on the floor. The sense that came ringing clearly out of this moment was that violence is just a waste of human energy and beauty.
And then the music came back, recorded voices singing in harmony, and the clarinets fluttered back into a thoughtful, hopeful swell, and gradually the dancers pulled themselves up to standing. What happened next reminded me of something Aristotle said about fiction/art/’poetry’ – that poetry is more important than history, because ‘the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be.’ I felt a frustrated exhaustion and sad recognition of the futile cycles of conflict the dancers portrayed as the piece wound to its conclusion, our sad, shared history. And then when it felt like I/we couldn’t take it anymore, a shift happened, and then came the surprising introduction of a hopeful ‘what if?’ into the dance.
The dancers slowly began introverted, soulful dances all on their own, eyes shut. Then gradually they harmonised, opened their eyes, and the dance became wild, joyous, free, individual and shared. My heart rose up, and I wished hard that all our interactions as a society ‘might be’…like this. Another reason why the show was so powerful was its technical beauty – the movement of the dancers was precise, agile and evocative, and perfectly orchestrated according to the thematic progression of the piece. It was brilliant. It was hard to believe this piece was only a half hour.
The next show shocked the hell out of me, for various reasons, and explored a sharply realistic and extremely important corner of the democracy theme: if you don’t already have it, how, how, how, do you create it? How does revolution feel, what are the details, what do you actually do, what does it do to you? This was a theatre piece for three actors called MOUVMA! by Collectif Corps Citoyen, a collaboration between Tunisian and Italian artists, presented in Arabic, French and Italian with subtitles. It was about the beginning of democratic revolt in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.
Before this show started, the festival co-directors, Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun, came out on stage and read a statement written by the actors. I hadn’t seen the news – it was Friday 26 June, the day that Islamic State gunmen from Tunisia opened fire on a beach in the Tunisian resort town of Port EL Kantaoui and killed 35 people, mostly foreign tourists. The statement said, ‘We will have to explain to the world that we are not like them. This show is our only tool to ask questions and keep hope alive’.
The show began with the house lights up and the three actors, one man and two women, chatting brightly, lightly to the audience: ‘Hi!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hello!’, ‘Ça va?’, ‘Hi!’ This devolved into a comic confusion in different languages, with the three talking over each other, all saying ‘Are you okay? So what’s up? How are you? How are your Studies? Your job? Your family? Your Friends? For Me, it’s going so well, very well thank you.’ Then the falsity of the surface greeting crumbled, the idea of ‘being okay’ crumbled, and they were not okay, and ‘nowhere’ was anything ‘okay’.
Then the scene broke up and they scrambled into various patterns, exploring and depicting the actions and details of revolt. One of the most powerful moments was when we are told an eyewitness’s account of a man who sets himself on fire for a political protest. We hear the details:
‘But I was close enough to see that the man was wearing glasses. He took the can and threw it. He shook. He took the lighter again with the same gesture.’
At another point, the stage lights went dark, and a film was projected on the whole of the backstage wall, which was real footage of the chaos during the political revolt. Because of the darkness on stage, the actors in grey light blended into the moving shadows of the projection. They shouted out, became like people in the film made real on stage. They tell us, tell each other, ‘we have to protect our heads’, and ‘the police have orders to kill’. One of the powerful effects of this show was that the dimensions of theatre and reality warped together, to bring the audience across the separating devices of time, distance, culture, the almost fictional-feeling remove of the news on telly and in newspapers. The show was exploding the line between real and not-real, near and far, using the magical properties of the un-real theatre to collapse distance.
After this the scene dissolves and the lights come up again, and quietly, seriously, they ask each other, ‘Ça va?’ And this question,Are you ok? meant so much more now than at the innocent beginning of the show. It meant, ‘have you survived?’ This circling back the idea of being okay, now heavy with the deeper weight of love and fear of loss amidst the breaking passion of revolution, was beautiful theatre.
The show ended with one of the actors staring at canisters filled with green fluid that have been on the stage all along. He moves towards one of them, and the other two rush to stop him. He keeps lunging for the canisters, and they keep trying to stop him. The lights go out, and he splashes the liquid around himself, the house lights go dark, and then they start striking matches. In the dim light of the matches, he says, ‘And so I did it, right? Because I had a rotten life before.’
This show felt like all the words I have ever read about political protest and revolution come to life in 3-D, several metres away from me. And what came through most clearly is that it is an edge in the mind, reached collectively, a tipping point in the mind, in many minds. It felt like desperate, urgent reportage more than theatre, and like we were brushing up against the particular elements, the details and nuances of revolution. It was powerful and brilliant.
The format of the festival is designed around sociability, and every night during a hiatus in the performances the audience, performers and festival staff sit down together to a dinner cooked by London-based food artists Blanch and Shock. Nicky and I had Toulouse sausages, a duck egg, lentil, tomato and red pepper stew, fennel, spring onion and parsley salad and yoghurt. I kept asking myself, ‘what is artistic about this food?’ as I chewed and talked to Nicky and a lovely older couple called Liz and Peter (who were avid Birmingham theatre goers), and in the end I decided that the way each different flavour mixed with the others on the plate in perfect harmony was extremely democratic, as well as delicious.
The festival programmed lighter offerings post-dinner; the first was a thoughtful and humorous solo circus performance by Darragh McLoughlin, called The Whistle, which was produced by Squarehead Productions of Ireland. Darragh asked us to close our eyes then open our eyes in patterns as he blew a whistle hanging around his neck, playing with illusion and perception (and our honesty) in charming and interesting ways. The piece had the feel of gentle clowning and juggling mixed with a sort of zen minimalism and showed some touches of real abstract artistic brilliance. At one point when we were supposed to have our eyes closed, Darragh asked us, ‘Am I still performing if no one is watching me?’
The show traced the trajectory of learning and failure in the moments where Darragh allowed us to open our eyes to the backstage moments of a juggling trick, to the dropped balls and failed attempts. He reminded me afterwards, during the disco party in the festival Hub that closed the night, that circus is an art with an intensely crystallised focus on perfection, and it was poignant to be shown the circus performer’s private moments of struggle, out of which radiated a more expansive philosophical significance. It was a lovely show.
The final performance of the night was my personal favourite. It was a contemporary theatre piece called Of Miracles and Wonders, Optimistic Conference by Fundación Collado Van Hoestenberghe of Spain, which is the artistic partnership of the two performers, Ernesto Collado of Spain and Barbara Van Hoestenberghe of Belgium.
Ernesto was dressed in a powder blue suit, and Barbara in a white minidress. Onstage there were two desks with laptops, some musical instruments on Barbara’s side of the stage, including electric guitar and small bar chimes, and on Ernesto’s desk a pitcher of red juice. There were some potted plants scattered around and a large projection screen at the back of the stage. The show begins in silence, with text appearing on the projection screen, in imperfect English, one line at a time:
‘I love this moment.
All this expectations…
It’s like a pear.
More precisely like the stalk of a pear.
Because the stalk of a pear is not yet a pear.
It’s still the branch.
This is to say, the tree.
And this is to say a fractal infinity of possibilities.
And this takes us directly to quantum physics.’
After each line appears, the audience laughs, and this is the first sound of the piece. I started to feel the building of an irrepressible exuberance and delight at the way these ideas were unfolding, and this only deepened with every revolution of the show, which was a succession of sweet, absurd, comic, poetic vignettes.
After the silent dialogue and laughter of the beginning, Ernesto takes over as our guide through the show, and we are whooshed down many more rabbit holes and twirled through dancing concepts, which left me feeling pleasantly drunk on ideas. We go though philosophical contemplations of loss – lost words, lost time – via a lost lighter; through consciousness, dreams, conscience, and peaceful societies via the Spanish siesta; through the inscription on the Delphic oracle’s temple, ‘know thyself’ via Ikea, with interjections of Shakespeare and musings on John Wayne.
The show was so eclectic, allusory and sporadic, that it is natural to question its unity, its framing, which narratively was the ‘Optimistic Conference’ of the title, but the wildly veering angles felt oddly well connected – I think by the thickness of the sense of wonder, the other material under consideration in the show, which was being quite consciously and deliberately spun by the staging, the wonderfully poetic text and thoughtful performances by Ernesto and Barbara. At one point Ernesto quotes Montaigne: ‘If we give the name of miracles and wonder to everything our reason cannot comprehend, are they not continually presented before our eyes?’, and I felt this was the unifying element of the show, the contemplation of the quality of wonder.
Aftewards, talking about this show with Nicky, she said, ‘I wanted the crazy to flower more’, sagely guessing that this was a longer show cut down to fit the parameters of the festival. The design of the festival is structured so that the shows are about 30 minutes, to fit four performances into each evening more comfortably for the audience. Ernesto told us afterwards that the show is normally an hour, and they found it difficult to cut it down to a smaller size. It was, ahem, wonderful, anyway, but I would love to see the full version sometime.
We felt this was true for ‘MOUVMA!’ as well, and we reflected that most contemporary theatre pieces are about an hour, and that it is rare to see shorter ones – but interestingly, I felt the power of both shows despite the truncation, and I deeply enjoyed all of the shows I saw and was grateful to the festival for giving me such a generous offering of brilliant European performance. I was also grateful to the festival for giving us a disco in the festival Hub with DJ Glyn Phillips until 2 a.m. after all the shows finished. I was crackling with wonder, with art, theatre, humanity, hope, and I really needed to dance.