Winchester is a quiet, medieval city kept afloat by a gentle conservative people. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing rocking the boat. Although if you listen carefully, you’ll find a colourful and clever art scene is bubbling up beneath the ancient paved streets.
Once a year the artists emerge, once a year there is a little revolution so loud that creative creatures all over the world hear their cries and flock to our sleepy city. The lovingly constructed culture cracks under and a sense of the bohemian floods the streets. Brace for impact, the Hat Fair is here.
For three days in early July this soft spoken city in the heart of Hampshire is alive with the sound of art and artists. I became involved in the Hat Fair through the Young Critic Scheme at the Theatre Royal. An academic creche started by theatrical virtuoso Carl Woodward where young critics attend workshops by journalists and leading theatre critics. Usually we strive to understand each critic’s perspective on theatre criticism as an art form but the week before the Hat Fair had been a different kettle of fish. We met The Megan Vaughan. She was to be our mentor and we could not have done better in this respect. She fired us up. She posed us questions. The Hat Fair is the UK’s longest running street arts festival, but how do you review street art? If street performance falls under the banner of theatre, why is there almost no main stream publicity for it at all? It’s arguably the oldest and most accessible form of theatre around, so why aren’t we talking about it? Also who and what is reframing these streets?
Her curious wisdom acted as both a moral compass and as mental chewing gum; she inspired us without spoon feeding us and threw support around like confetti, while we trotted of in search of the answers out for ourselves. 100% excellent Meg.
And so it began, questions at the ready the Hat Fair happened. A blur of dance, fire, smoke, craft, song, books, music, willows headdresses, food, laughter, tears, cloud people, sweets, willow trees, plastic fish and sui-cycles. The lovely Mark Fisher said of working in Edinburgh: “It’s like watching a city in conversation with itself, the work is local, the context is local, the audience is local.” The Hat Fair does exactly this, it acts as a love letter to Winchester from Winchester, reminding itself to cherish the artists and let its hair down. Street Theatre gives both artist and audience no where to hide; there’s no escape from the art. Everywhere you looked over that gorgeous sunny weekend, a crowd had gathered. The cathedral, usually awash with slow moving tourists and even slower moving youths, lounging about in smokey gaggles, was suddenly transformed. The area became a stage for the amazing Mr Fish. The sightseer and the delinquent suddenly united over pop up art, surely that’s the beauty of street performances. Children and parents alike gathered in the palm of a performers hand, laughing out loud over ice lollies and sticky fingers. It may also help to have a brilliant performer, Mr Fish is exactly that. Easily the greatest solo show this year, his master stroke was the ease with which he held himself, this man is a professional people pleaser and the crowd adored him. Street performers fight for there audience and I believe they should be held with the same esteem as actors and dancers. His work was so obviously brilliant, he held everyone’s attention and made four different generations laugh. He was an inspiration and I wrote him an open letter instead of a review (you can read this and more from the Winchester Young Critics here).
The real beauty is just when you think you understand street art, it changes entirely. Take Graeme Miller’s Track, which made its home under the willow trees on the recreational grounds of North Walls. I will be eternally grateful for it. The moment you lay back on the moving platform, it was as though a stranger had taken your brain by the hand. It was like being put through an emotional car wash. The surrounding hustle and bustle is inescapable, but the sounds of the city almost melt away into the background; they become lift music. It’s as though your brain dives into the visual majesty of the piece and leaves the noise bit to sort itself out.
It’s got to do wonders for your mental well-being. The sunlight dancing through the leaves and flickering against the dark bark above you is a kind of paradise. The sheer beauty of the spectrum of greens on show make it feel like nature’s showing off, when in actual fact it’s Graeme Miller who’s showing off.
I began trying to understand street art, trying to dismantle its component parts and assess what makes it great but its brilliance lies in its simplicity. My favorite piece this year was a walk out about performance by La Galerie Mobil entitled the Cloudmen. Two performers dressed in homage to the great Magritte, wandered through the crowds slowly, tilting there bowler hats to passers by, never uttering a word. They made me smile and they asked for nothing else.
I trust this art form implicitly. It resonates with people so immediately and with the same stroke it catches them off guard.