With more than 80 companies presenting work across 14 venues this year, Ignite continues to grow in breadth, quality and ambition. New work from emerging local artists rubbed shoulders with acclaimed pieces from established companies from across the country in a diverse, vibrant programme that couldn’t fail to excite. As well as in spaces used to hosting performance, audiences found themselves in pub back rooms, cellar rooms and garden rooms, both outside and inside the newly renovated library, in sacred places and reclaimed spaces, and on the city’s streets. The city felt alive with possibility.
Exeter Phoenix offered a broad programme across a few of its performance spaces, including Gym Party, Made in China’s visceral take on what it actually means to win. Dressed in white shorts and vests and wearing wigs that match the neon names above them, Chris (Brett Bailey), Jess (Latowicki) and Ira (Brand) vie for our votes, aiming to be the one whose name stays up in lights at the end of the show. As they flex and stretch in preparation, warming up for the challenges ahead by running around in circles, their energy and eagerness to please at first appears as upbeat as the pumping music. Only on closer inspection do we begin to notice the small stains on their vests, splashed there from the trickle of blood from their nostrils. It soon becomes clear just what they’re expected to give in the pursuit of victory.
Through a series of increasingly unpleasant rounds – tasks to induce vomiting and injury, at the very least indignity, including dizzy racing and stuffing their mouths with marshmallows – we bear witness to the extremes of engagement encouraged by our competition-obsessed culture, and the toll it takes on the human spirit. As the brutality creeps in – and with the ‘contestants’ constantly reminding us that they are here for us, and we are here for them; that without us, this wouldn’t be happening at all – we become increasingly complicit. ‘Forced’ to make ever more uncomfortable choices (which of them is the most attractive, the most trustworthy, which one would we save from certain death?), and to watch the penalties suffered by the ‘losers’, we must address our behaviour as part of the crowd. To acknowledge that inaction makes us just as culpable as the aggressors.
But it’s not just the school-sports-day-from-hell aesthetic and the searing cruelty that evoke playground nightmares; interspersed with the ‘games’ are recollections from childhood, and we’re encouraged to see the trio’s 12-year-old selves, to hear their failures and disappointments, to feel anew the crushing need to fit in, to be liked, to please not be the only one not asked to dance. Painful and disturbing – and gruesomely funny – Gym Party is a piece that slaps you about the head and demands that you pay attention to your role in the status quo.
Also interrogating the nature of how we behave as part of a crowd is FellSwoop’s Current Location. Inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, this new play by Japanese writer Toshiki Okada (devised and adapted by the company) is full of foreboding and creeping unease, as five women from ‘the village’ react to the arrival of a sinister blue cloud. Four are members of a choir, and are tightly bound to each other until a fifth woman, a woman no one knows, joins them. There are rumours that the cloud heralds the destruction of the entire village. Should they believe the rumours or not? Should they stay or should they leave? And who is this ‘Hannah’, really? As fear tightens its grip and the community starts to fracture, it becomes clear that what you choose to believe can have serious consequences.
FellSwoop’s spare and precise production is well suited to the slightly austere setting of a crisp new space at the refurbished Library – the eerie tale is conjured expertly from words, music and bodies in space. A moment in which Florence – the ‘leader’ of this tight little unit – angrily pulls down the blinds in response to another character’s concerns not only silences alternate opinion but shuts out the light, literally and metaphorically. The use of song and vocal harmonies reinforce the text’s exploration of cohesion, how being so in tune with those around you can reduce your ability to accept change, to hear other voices, especially when they question what is collectively being ignored.
That the actors sit amongst the audience reminds us that a performance creates a temporary community; when they begin to hum or vocalise responses to the narrative, the sound could be coming from all of us – as ‘the crowd’, we too are complicit. Quietly gripping and thoroughly unsettling, it climbs inside you, this piece, like the best examples of sci-fi in which the monster is revealed to have been within all along.
A similar sense of disquiet underpins A Conversation, Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari’s brilliantly sinister piece about human interaction and dialogue. Above an ominous tone, a voice intones, “Have you ever stopped to think that your happiness, as well as your success in life, depends to a great extent today upon your ability to carry on an interesting and intelligent conversation?” So also begins the show’s source material, The Ethel Cotton Course in Conversation, a 1935 set of lessons in the art of how to get along – in life and with one’s fellow men (gender equality isn’t really part of Ethel’s remit). Standing amid piles of suitcases and packing crates, a ‘fog’ swirling in the spotlit darkness of the Bike Shed’s brick-lined gloom, Barrett delivers Ethel’s pearls of wisdom accompanied by a soundscape of increasing discordance and the slapping tide, as if we’re missionaries on some chilly dock about to embark for the colonies and he’s arming us with the weapons of mass civilization.
But this inventive solo piece is more than just a satire on the casual racism, misogyny and presumptions of universality intrinsic to Ethel’s imperial worldview; it is an astute dissection of how we interact with one another and the compromises we make in servitude to our social conventions. One can be forgiven anything, Ethel’s edicts imply, as long as one isn’t ‘dull’ – are things really so different now?
Lighting and sound are used to great effect in this piece, but key to its success is Barrett’s utterly beguiling performance. And there’s a gin and tonic. How very civilized.
Also making eloquent use of lighting and sound at the Bike Shed was Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine, Ira Brand and Andy Field’s imaginatively intimate search for the meaning of love. An audience of 20 sit in two rows facing each other, Field and Brand among us as they describe eyes across a crowded auditorium, a casual encounter on the Metro, a romance turning sour as a thunderstorm rages around them. We are encouraged to look into the eyes of the person sitting opposite us, to eventually hold their hands in ours, while slowly coming to the realisation that other people are intrinsically unknowable, even those with whom we’ve shared our closest experiences.
There are some beautifully tender moments, including an argument about proximity – one wanting release from the too-tight hold of the other – while both hold pieces of ice that diminish in their hands, gradually slipping through their fingers. Towards the end, standing at opposite ends of the ‘carriage’, they climb into soaking wet clothes pulled from buckets of water and stand dripping, yelling movie romance clichés (‘you had me at hello’ … ‘in the words of The Partridge Family…’) at each other across a soundtrack of rumbling skies and howling rain. But even though we’re right in it, sitting beside and opposite them as the trace the ups and down of this relationship, it’s strangely distancing; love and pain described rather than conveyed.
A piece that grabs the heart and won’t let go, however, is Greyscale’s astonishing Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone. A mother and daughter circle each other around the Bike Shed’s small performance space – pacing, passing, never quite touching – as they repeat a conversation about having a bath, the weather, a break-in at Aunt Marie’s house, the mother’s aching shoulder… Just as their language reveals and conforms to the rituals of their relationship, so their movements trace the unseen patterns that are the foundation of family behaviour. Questions about the daughter’s boyfriend niggle; an inability to accept gracefully and without complication the simple offer of a cup of tea rankles. As a portrayal of the intense and often conflicted mother-daughter relationship, it feels very real indeed.
That the two actors playing the mother and daughter are men ceases to be of any relevance within seconds; it is the emotional honesty that registers, not the gender: the disappointment held in a moment’s breath, the glance that intuits all, the response that holds its truth behind a hesitation. At the side of the stage, drinking tea and doing a jigsaw together, sit a real mother and daughter; as the conversations repeat and reprise, and the tension rises with each disruption towards a new revelation or concealment, they smile in recognition, share a look, and we become more even more attuned to the exquisite drama of family life.
At just under an hour, this piece (written and directed by Selma Dimitrijevic) is a masterclass in precision. As the mother and daughter, Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull are captivating, creating something so real, so moving, that when their conversation finally draws to its natural end, my heart is ready to burst.
Taking place at one of the new venues on the Ignite roster – and allowing a peek inside a sacred space that is rarely open to the public – was Coffee with Vera, in which Ruth Mitchell delivers a masterclass in how autobiographical work can tell a deeply personal story while drawing in the wider world and experience, and without a hint of self-indulgence. The performance begins around a long table upstairs at the Exeter Synagogue, but the story itself starts on the set of Little Dorritt in 1986 – Ruth’s first job out of drama school – when she meets the peerless character actor Miriam Margolyes. As they both sit in the ‘make-up removal’ room (key to creating the film’s authentic Dickensian aesthetic), Miriam scrutinizes Ruth before asking, “Jewish?” To Ruth’s denial, Miriam replies, “With that name – and that face – you should be!”
And so began Ruth’s investigation into whether the girl who should be Jewish could be Jewish, leading her from censuses to ancestry.com, from personal memory through family myth to the creative springboard of ‘what if…’ to the vestry of Exeter Synagogue, where she shares with us her story over coffee and home-baked cake. Using photographs and marriage certificates, recipe books and playbills pulled from a suitcase in front of her – and via the character of Vera Jockleson, Chair of the Ladies’ Guild and consummate coffee morning hostess – Ruth fuses autobiography and history to create a subtly moving meditation on the nature of identity and heritage. Seamlessly entwined is a fascinating insight into the Plymouth Synagogue (the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world still in regular use) and the Jewish diaspora in the South West.
Although Vera is a great companion, this piece is at its absolute best when Mitchell is herself, guiding us through her story with warmth and humour, articulating the difficulties inherent in sifting through the past to reveal the present, especially when the desire for a fresh start or the cruelties of persecution have necessitated slippages that are hard to trace.
An autobiographical piece that works less well is The Wardrobe Theatre’s Wildbore, which uses solo performance to tell a deeply personal story but suffers ultimately from a surfeit of introspection. Jesse Meadows offers a character study of her beloved grandmother, Joyce, in episodes ranging from a first dance to the first days in the new house that would be her life-long home to political epiphanies; these are entwined with recollections of time they spent together towards the end of Joyce’s life. Brimming with love, and with the grief tinged with joy for experiences they shared, this show is tender and moving, but not developed enough to reveal much beyond that.
Walking a slightly disconcerting line between the autobiographical and the dramatic is Write by Numbers’ Blueprint, in which 32-year-old science teacher Kate seeks to capture her life, and record its important (and not so important) moments in order to quantify and qualify it before she dies. “We’ll all face this moment at some point,” she states. Some much sooner than expected.
And so we get 48 such moments – the blueprint for her life – that make Kate (superbly played by Samantha Baines) who she is, supported by a series of friends, lovers and colleagues (played by Estelle Buckridge, Lucy Grace and James Groom), as well as the teacher who inspired her to go into science in the first place and who counts off the moments with a stopwatch and a clipboard. There are tallies of the hours spent dancing, the number of days spent being a teacher, the years it took to find the perfect pair of jeans… Funny and moving, with diverting segues into quantum physics and particle theory, it explores the composite minutiae that make up a life, but is overlong (minutes spent singing Oasis songs? One is already too many) and somewhat repetitive.
Also at the Bike Shed, and delivering some hearty laughs, was Junkshop Theatre Company’s Hardworking People, which offers a deceptively subtle take on quite how rubbish modern life is for young people trying to make their way in the world. Out of university, armed with degrees, work experience and gap-year credentials, Jem and Eli should be on top of the world. But Eli’s been made redundant following austerity cuts at the council and Jem has been sacked because of an ill-judged tweet that’s just shy of a lawsuit. Neither can get so much as an interview and British Gas is ready to send in the heavies. How did it come to this?
Beth Shouler’s new play is a fast and very funny look at what happens when the bright young things have to face the dark days of modern society’s meltdown. Gone are the days when a degree was the key to a successful career and two holidays a year. Now, Jem has to gain ‘employable skills’ (“It’s stacking shelves! I’ve been putting the shopping away since I was nine!”) on the Workfare programme, while Eli struggles to look ‘casually sexy’ while slinging shots in a sequinned Stetson. Oh, the indignity.
Lewis Peek imbues Eli with gentle charm, his growing despair as the rejections pile up highlighting the harsh reality of trying to find one’s place in a world that doesn’t care. As the more resilient Jem, Rosie Woodham really shines in what is the more developed role, and pulls in the biggest laughs as Eli’s nightmare supervisor at the shots bar, preventing these sections from overstaying their welcome.
Also big on laughs, and demonstrating how autobiographical work can pull in wider themes and issues, is Victoria Melody’s Major Tom. Following success after success on the amateur dog show circuit, Victoria decides it’s time for her and her prize-winning basset hound to turn professional. Major Tom might well have walked away with the title ‘Biggest Ears in the South-East’, but the big time is a different world altogether, and the former top dog finds himself bottom of the pile. Although determined, with the help of various men named Brian, to coach Major Tom to Crufts glory, Victoria starts to feel guilty about exposing him to such unflinching scrutiny. When a judge criticises Major Tom for having ‘too big a ribcage’, Victoria decides to plunge herself into the perma-tanned world of the beauty pageant to show solidarity.
By immersing herself completely in the subcultures about which she makes work (a previous show saw her tackling Northern Soul and pigeon-racing), Melody has the inside view that allows for complete authenticity. While it’s clear that she’s commenting on the insularity of these particular subcultures, and the bizarrely anachronistic tendencies they have to remain stubbornly stuck in a past that seems immune to conversations about equality and cruelty, there’s no sneering, no cynicism, even when both Melody and Major Tom are the brunt of in-crowd snobbery: “It seemed that neither of us had the pedigree to be there,” says Melody.
And while this piece is clearly making a point about our beauty-obsessed, judgmental, perfection-obsessed society, it does so with such charm that you’d hardly notice. Melody’s barely-there performance style and dry wit, combined with the perfectly timed and pitched films documenting each of their successes in the hilariously similar fields of scrutiny, also contributes to the pleasing ambiguity about what’s art and what’s real.
As for Major Tom, he seems completely unfazed, spending the majority of the show asleep on a giant cushion, pausing only to wander off the Phoenix’s main stage in search of… we’ll never know. Such is the inscrutability of the basset hound. One thing is certain: he possesses perfect comic timing.
Physical comedy of the highest order is at the heart of Spitz & Co.’s Gloriator at the Bike Shed. Created by Pauline Morel and Susie Donkin (who met during a Spymonkey workshop in 2012), this hugely enjoyable show follows French actress Gloria Delaneuf’s (Morel) mission to create a touring version of Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator that addresses the film’s lack of female representation. Gloria, naturellement, will play all the major characters (in a scene between Gloriator and the emperor Commodus, both at the same time), and Josephine Cunningham (Donkin), her UK tour manager, “will play everyone else”. Including Gloriator’s horse.
As the imperiously pretentious Gloria reveals her vision, using every theatrical weapon in her armoury, from ‘acting of the head’ (her facial responses to the original film’s trailer) to mask to mime, the permanently bullied Josephine translates, tries to control the cardboard set and costumes, and attempts to reclaim some smidgen of autonomy through small acts of rebellious disruption. With a rapier-sharp script, and tight direction from Angus Barr, Gloriator is hilarious from start to finish, but there’s more going on, too – it skewers gender and racial inequality across the entertainment industry while also having some fun with the Anglo-French relationship.
Morel and Donkin give tremendously skilled performances that combine precise physical control and dexterity with subtle characterisation, revealing all the delicate shifts in balance that perpetuate Gloria and Josephine’s love-hate relationship. A comedy duo of immense talent.
Equally playful and delightfully disruptive – and having as much fun pulling apart its source material – is Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper’s Don Quijote, a raucous, riotous, anarchic show that is beautifully staged at The Hall, a historic ex-church/school making its debut as an Ignite pop-up venue. It is perhaps here that the festival’s guiding motto – any space can be a theatre – reaches its most apt union, with a show that champions personal transformation in a venue that is being painstakingly restored as a labour of love.
Using shadow play, live music, and a different guest actor playing the eponymous Don each performance, this show hits the major plots points of Cervantes’ book as well as incorporating its meta-textual elements. Subversions come and go – the soothsaying monkey, for instance – like so many petals in the wind, but while this piece might be less concerned with the content of the novel it utterly embodies the spirit, and pumps you full of wonder, hope and joy. It is a dizzying call to arms to be a Don Quijote rather than a non-Quijote – to do what’s right regardless of the consequences or societal censure.
Immersed from the get-go, the audience sits on cushions in the midst of the performance, shuffling around to watch projections, live action and the deconstruction of the novel via angle grinder, paper shredder and industrial fan as they occur. Once we’ve readied Quijote (played here by Rose Biggin) for her quest by covering her in cardboard armour with miles of duct tape, she extends her hand to an audience member to join her on an adventure and they head out into the night, returning at the show’s close to reveal the pledges they’ve made, small personal transformations that will ripple outwards with the potential to alter everything.
Slightly ramshackle, with low-fi charm and a vibrancy that is completely bewitching, Don Quijote is fun, funny and inspiring. After seeing this show you will believe that you can change the world.
Coordinated and led once again by the Bike Shed Theatre, supported by Exeter City Council, the Phoenix arts centre, and the Northcott and Cygnet theatres, Ignite creates a palpable buzz around the city, and I’m feeling a bit despondent now it’s all over – surely the marker of a great festival. And proof once again of the contribution that David Lockwood and the exemplary team at the Bike Shed are making to Exeter’s cultural landscape.