A brand new autumn festival for Exeter, Unexpected presented a programme of outdoor events and performances, taking them out of the usual spaces and thrusting them into the public arena. Funded by the council, it turned the city centre into a sort of multi-ring circus, filling outdoor (and semi-outdoor) spaces usually dominated by commerce with trapeze workshops, acrobatic displays, interventions and performances, most free to access.
Three indoor ticketed events – Reckless Sleepers’ The Last Supper, Blind Ditch’s This City’s Centre 3: Here, Now, and Joel Cahen’s Wet Sounds (which I didn’t see) – subverted the spaces they occupied (the historic Guildhall, an empty office space and a swimming pool, respectively) by their form and/or content, and each was enhanced by the knowledge of how we usually interact with and in those spaces, if we are permitted into them at all.
While there seems little doubt that these public spectacles and interventions engaged those who sought them out (there was a sense of excitement and expectation in evidence throughout the city centre, and plenty of spectators gathered, waiting, watching), there was also the fact that you can’t fail to miss a performance when it inserts itself into your daily commute to work, or one man is doing a headstand on the head of another – and both are wearing animal skins – while you’re trying to get to Superdrug. Your routine is inexorably altered, your perception of a familiar journey or place transformed. And is that enough, or is there the expectation that these events will nudge the casual observer towards a ticketed event in a theatre at some point, if not today?
Whatever the overarching intention, there is something rather splendid about a bus-full of people applauding their driver just for being their driver, which is just one of the subtle subversions employed by the nostalgia-tinged and nasal-toned Public Transport Appreciation Society (created by new Exeter-based company Nuts & Volts Theatre), who spent the week intervening on city buses, offering tours of specific routes, with local history facts, quizzes, sing-alongs and I Spy. Bemused travellers received a Werther’s Original plus the chance to win a goody bag for correctly knowing what it was Phil Collins – “from the band Genesis, not Barometer World…” – who has never lived in Exeter.
The crowd on the H Bus (to and from the hospital) was a tough one, including a semi-aggressive heckler and some resolute eye-rollers, but the return journey had some participants in fine voice and with the enthusiasm to play a game or two. As gentle interventions go, it was sweet and good-natured, although still obviously too challenging for some, but it was a much-needed reminder of how much more pleasant the world is when we talk to each other and interact with those with whom we share the day-to-day mundanities, let alone the big stuff. By the time the PTAS left the bus, there were smiles all around, and no doubt a smile in the retelling later that day.
Interrupting the flow of people’s routines and challenging the notion of where art can and does take place has driven the work of two of the companies presenting ticketed events at Unexpected. The first was Reckless Sleepers’ 2004 piece The Last Supper, which is built around the rituals associated with eating and dying. An immediate thrill in seeing this show was being permitted inside a building not open to the public: the historic Guildhall, parts of which are the oldest still in use in the city. More resonant – and no doubt contributing to the hush all 39 audience members automatically fell into as we filed in to take a number (13 of which correspond to the last meals of death row inmates) and were directed to our seats around a formal dining table – was the knowledge that under the stone flooring is the old city jail (more like a pit, really), where prisoners were held before trial in the space where we were to watch the performance. The walls dripping with the oiled dead, wood panelling like so much coffinware, there was as much ceremony and ritual in the location as that promised by the piece. It’s gratifying to know that The Last Supper’s performance here has led to bookings in other Guildhalls around the country.
With no pretence at characterisation – Mole Wetherall, Tim Ingram and Leen Dewilde play themselves, seated at the top table – The Last Supper invites us to bear witness to the last moments of the famous, the infamous, the factual and the fictional, to partake of last meals and last words, some self-aware, some mundane, all made profound by the finality of the breath that uttered them. We hear Kafka calling for morphine and Monroe calling Kennedy; Che Guevara’s final utterances are manipulated depending on whose objective they serve; and all are eaten by the cast, for they are printed on rice paper. Some of those quoted, we know their lives, their achievements, their failures simply by the nature of the lives they lived or they deaths they endured; others we know only by name, prisoner number and last meal. Death is the great leveller.
Deceptively simple, there are subtle segues that create a narrative of sorts: a prisoner’s last meal of deep-fried everything is placed in front of an audience member to be followed by a list of Elvis Presley’s gargantuan daily diet, and details of his demise atop the toilet, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich clutched in one hand; a slice of cake accompanying another death row repast feeds Marie Antoinette’s walk to the guillotine. Two scenes early on hint at horror – the entire Romanov family massacred, only a maid remaining to tell the tale; Rasputin’s fierce battle with his assassins and the reaper – but mostly there is a calm delivery, a slipping away, a receding, which makes the executions all the more unsettling. What of their victims, the other deaths that lead to this one? Where are they?
Most satisfying is the piece’s identification of the rituals and ceremony around food and death, inextricably linked – the last meal, the last supper, the Eucharist… When a prisoner’s requested chocolate cake with candles is delivered, the audience member blows them out and we all clap unprompted, this ritual buried deep within us since childhood. How many more of these are there, hidden from awareness until called forth by a specific situation? The calling of numbers, the presentation of meals, the pause before lifting the lid of the silver serving dish, the pouring of water and wine, the toasting of the departed – all combine to create a quietly moving piece.
Occupying a far more prosaic space – an empty office – but producing the most challenging and rewarding experience of the festival was This City’s Centre 3: Here, Now, from Devon-based collective Blind Ditch, who have been presenting genre-busting, digital performance art work in unusual spaces – including touring a multi-screen converted caravan with young people’s films to village fetes in Devon and Ireland, exhibiting supersize storyboards on train station platforms, and performing over the internet from people’s homes across the world – for 12 years. The third part of a multi-layered work in collaboration with local performers/devisors and residents – the other aspects are a video+sound installation called Window in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and an interactive mapped walk of the city called Linger – Here, Now combines live performance, live video feeds, live music and audience interaction to create a genuinely affecting performance event.
Engaging directly with the notion of public-private space, Here, Now allowed us into an empty office in the Princesshay retail development (owned by Landmark Securities, Princesshay is one of those unsettling spaces with an almost seamless transition from public highway to private land; tarry too long on one of the benches after the shops have shut and you’ll soon have uniformed guards emerging en masse from different corners to question your intentions). Fitting, then, that Blind Ditch rebuilt its version of Exeter in a room situated on the same floor as the security team.
“Forget everything you know about Exeter,” commands our guide (Phil Smith) as we converge outside the office building, the shops around us all closed, our presence here already anachronistic and a little subversive. Red-coated like the well-known city guides who conduct regular tours of Exeter’s past, he demands that we ignore all associations that spring to mind. It’s a call to open our perception to possibilities, to embrace the next two hours with a willingness to think differently.
He leads us inside, and laid out before us is the city rendered in cardboard – there the cathedral, the streets mapped out in miniature. Two of the cast (Katie Villa and Smith) walk among it like giants, evoking myth and legend, and during the course of the performance we too get to stalk its tiny thoroughfares, committing our hopes and dreams to its walls and roofs while live video feeds stream images from the streets outside the space and spaces within people’s homes onto the insides of two windows; the cast play out scenes from the day to day dynamics of the urban environment, the interactions and engagements that make a living, breathing city. Tales from an imagined past mesh with personal experience, testimony, night-time behaviours and day-time activities – as if every possibility is conjured and allowed to find its own form, slipping away as immediately as it is suggested or finding its way into consciousness, making connections there.
Encouraged to walk into the city and write a statement about a regular activity that we engage in, numbering it from 1 to 10, we ponder what it is we actually do. What is worthy of being committed to cardboard? Numbered cards are held aloft and we read out statements in succession or together, our voices merging to create a heteroglossial mash that evokes the stories and voices of the city – a chorus of experiences. Later we write a wish for the city, and again read them out – ‘to hear music everyday… to spend more time with family… to buy a tweed jacket’. Then the city is dismantled, leaving just roads and buildings’ footprints in tape on the carpet, the performers using the space to play out the various changing moods and dramas of everyday life, before the inscribed cardboard is brought into play once more, and rebuilt with the wishes clearly visible on the outside, like monuments to expectation, monoliths of hope for change, for doing it differently, better.
The live feeds are both technically impressive and intriguing, adding to the narrative in the space while also creating separate narratives that feed into each other. We see views onto the street through the windows of city centre homes – through one, performers play in the road, observed by us in the space and by the resident in their home. On another screen sit a couple on a sofa (Jane Mason and Volkhardt Muller), surrounded by the trappings of comfort and yet seemingly discomforted by each other. Later, a figure (Lizzy Humber) seen lying on the pavement through one view appears outside the couple’s window like a wraith, and reaches in to deposit a piece of greenery on the windowsill, unnoticed.
Just as the actual performance space – and the whole Princesshay development – plays with the boundaries between the public and the private, so Here, Now incorporates that negotiation into its structure and its narrative. A screen pulls us inside a home overlooking Cathedral Green, its own night-time personality a backdrop to what’s happening inside, the resident kicking a football around his living room, before throwing it and various items out of the window, where they are gathered up by one of the performers (Jonny Rowden). The feed then switches to his footage of bouncing and kicking the ball through the streets, while inside the performance space Smith recounts his experiences watching Exeter City Football Club, wrapped in a sheet like a toga (a nod to Exeter’s Roman past).
As the excitement of the described game builds, we see on screen the familiar outside of this building, the stairs we walked up on our way to see this performance, and hear the bassy bounce-bounce of the ball through the corridor while we see it simultaneously on screen… Here, Now is packed with moments like this; moments in which what we see, what we hear and images evoked by the narrative unfolding before us slip, slide and leak into each other. Public, private, real, imagined, on film but live, recorded but echoed in the live performance – it all combines to create a thrilling and stimulating experience that continues to provoke contemplation long after the performance has ended.
It’s not perfect, certainly. There’s too much going on in a number of places, so that it feels a little baggy at times; on occasion I didn’t know which screen to look at and missed a whole section because I shut down slightly and focussed on what was happening in the performance space. Only in the bar later did I have an aspect of narrative explained to me (which in itself is a nice metaphor for the city experience). Being able to hear the tech team in charge of mixing the live feeds occasionally issuing instructions to the performers operating cameras elsewhere was distracting. A scene in which the whole cast move through a gestural dance of relationships, personalities and behaviours felt a little self-indulgent (I would rather have seen more of performer/choreographer Jane Mason on her own, or with one other cast member).
Despite that, it’s the scope and ambition of this project, the technical adventurousness, the collaborative and participatory ethos embedded in its very being that make it such a success. And just as the digital aspect is intrinsic to its narrative and structure, so is the sense of hope – the potential for change, for us to build the city we want, to be who we want to be. The set and process of the piece – the possibility of remaking the city with new attitudes, the sight of the performers dismantling and rebuilding before our eyes – implies that we can do this too, out there. And perhaps that’s the most challenging aspect of this work, because it encourages the audience to address the notion that the potential for change lies in us, a result of the changes we make within ourselves, our relationships and our behaviours in society. It is our responsibility to shape our idea of the world, a world in which people talk and engage with each other, share their hopes and dreams and try to make them a reality.
Any outdoor festival in the UK is a gamble – we’re always at the mercy of the weather – but Unexpected really seemed to capture a shared sense of fun, and the importance of actually getting on and doing stuff rather than just talking about it, which was embodied in the festival’s finale performance: Weighting, a work commissioned especially for the festival and produced by Extraordinary Bodies, a new company formed from Cirque Bijou and Diverse City. The piece, which saw an integrated company create a somewhat narratively opaque but undoubtedly visually spectacular display of aerial acrobatics, with Exeter’s cathedral a suitably impressive backdrop. Cathedral Green was absolutely heaving, packed with families, everyone shaken out of their routines and out of the house into the somewhat unseasonal balminess, embracing the chance to see the city with fresh eyes and enjoy the performance.
Perhaps because I’m so invested in the arts and performance scene in the city, Unexpected seemed to dominate the week, but I overhead and had various conversations during the run about the festival not being very well advertised. Admittedly this was after the rather disappointing turn out on the opening day (it rained throughout the day) but again and again I and others pointed out the flyers in many venues, cafés and meeting places throughout the city, the adshel posters, the coverage in every local newspaper, city magazine and listings guide in the run-up to the launch, radio interviews and features, Facebook, Twitter, as well as a full-page feature in the Exeter Citizen (a free newsletter delivered to practically every home in the city)… there has to be a certain level of self-determination, a willingness in people to actually explore further the snippet of information they do notice to see where it leads; a willingness to meet experiences half way, rather than expect to be spoonfed, and then reject what’s on the spoon as not being to their taste. Despite this, Unexpected is a welcome addition to the Exeter festival scene, and long may it continue to programme innovative and challenging work.
Main image by Ben Borley.