The one-day Watch Out Festival at the Cambridge Junction, billed as a ‘Festival of Dangerous New Theatre’, gathers premieres and works-in-progress from the country’s most talented experimental theatre companies and performers. It always feels to me like a beautifully curated, one-day sampler of the wildest acts from the cutting edge of theatre and performance that has been folded up in somebody’s pocket and unfolded for one day in Cambridge.
As the works are for the most part rough, raw and new, attending Watch Out often gives me a heightened sense of the interplay between artistic ideas and the material choices taken towards their realisation, which is one of the most interesting aspects of the festival to me: to see a raw idea shining through unsanded edges, unpounded nails, bare scaffolding or awkwardness, in varying degrees of magnitude, and to contemplate where the art happens in this process of creation.
One of the identifying features of Watch Out is the quality of the artists it gathers, and this year was no different. This year’s line-up featured works-in-progress from Hunt & Darton, Sh!t Theatre, and Christopher Brett Bailey, premiers from Ira Brand, Rachel Mars, Andy Field and Stefanie Mueller, and shows from Sylvia Rimat and TheatreState.
One of the shows I was particularly curious to see was Dollywood by Sh!t Theatre, as I’ve heard such great things about this company. The write-up in the programme simply said, ‘A show about Dolly Parton. We fucking love her.’ So I expected homage…but it wasn’t, quite. I realise that harbouring any expectations at all was probably a silly thing to do, now that I have heard their powerful, sharp, wild, abstract theatrical voice.
Dollywood was in the Junction’s small studio black box theatre, and as the audience settled in, the two performers who make up Sh!t Theatre (Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit) were lying under a pure white sheet billowed over the floor, just their white-painted faces peeking through it. They emerged primordially from it into a show that would transpire to be a riotous, challenging meditation on Dolly. They used her iconic image to explore Dolly-ness in an impressionistic whirl of absurdist vignettes and electric shocks of filmed lamb birthing, nudity and face-erasing… but I didn’t feel very much love for Dolly there.
Unless perhaps it was in the occasional quiet lulls where the show slowed down, and the two performers sang in beautiful harmony. I found the show brilliant in its pacing and interchange of energies. The pause for a song made space for questions about who Dolly really is, and how her strange, fractured, ubiquitous form relates to the original art at the heart of her: her songs and singing. In the end, the different elements coalesced for me into a fascinating and fulfilling show, where the exploration of the spaces in-between Dolly’s seeming and being became fertile, starry, mysterious portals filled with unanswered questions – pure art, this, I felt. And a brilliant beginning to Watch Out.
After Dollywood it was time to see Local by Hunt & Darton, which was a gentler but no less satisfying experience. They have transferred their highly enjoyable artistic blend of whimsy, curation, extemporaneity and audience participation into the format of ‘Local Radio’, a new step onwards from their much-loved ‘Café’. Their ‘local radio show’ was set up on a large bright red circle of carpet in the concrete piazza in front of the Cambridge Junction: it featured a fake cheese plant, two desks, microphones and paraphernalia for making sound effects and jingles. The set was charming, and so was the show. I realised as it unfolded that they were sweeping artistically through radio motifs one by one, casting an exploratory and fond eye on their sweet specificities, which had the effect of making our minds slow down to contemplate and enjoy them, too. The motifs included Introducing Songs (‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael), Live in the Crowd, Different Radio Voices, Phone-In, Guests in the Studio.
I enjoyed the fact that their performance of ‘Local Radio’ didn’t reduce ‘Local Radio’, and as I cast an eye over the crowd, I mused that this show, like the Café, happens in a public space outside the theatre, which means that it pulls in Other People, the ones who probably don’t usually go to see Challenging, Weird Performance Art, but people who happened to be milling around outside the cinema and restaurants on a Saturday. It felt important to have artists creating work in these social estuary spaces, imaginatively and physically.
As I pause to read back over what I’ve written, and prepare to tell you about the next show I saw, This Moment Now by Sylvia Rimat, I am remembering the rollicking pace of the changeover between shows. Because, you see, the festival format changed somewhat this year, so that all of the shows were presented in a single time-flow, and it was possible to see them all. But that was only if out of the following necessary actions you might need to perform in-between shows, you only chose two: getting a drink, having food, going to the loo, talking to you friends/the artists, texting your new boyfriend, or staring into space thinking about the last show you saw. And I couldn’t help myself – the programme was so delicious that the thought of missing something set off a cloud of longing and ennui in my heart, so I did try to see them all…but the result was that I kept feeling rushed, breathless, too short of time.
So it felt appropriate to hurry into a third show that was about time. Sylvia Rimat’s This Moment Now began with a puddle of yellow light in the middle of the stage, into which the Stage Manager began placing metronomes one by one – the old-fashioned wooden triangle kind with swinging arms and robust tick-tocks. Their rhythms all contrasted with each other, and into the enjoyable chaos, a drummer on a drum-kit started an improvisation, playing thoughtfully with the chaos from the metronomes. After this opening, the Stage Manager came back to explain that Sylvia was going to Skype in from a different time, from several minutes in the future. The playful, philosophical, poetic exploration of time that unfolded from this point was a beautifully considered and engaging piece that opened out in many different directions.
I was particularly grateful amidst the rushed moments of the day that Sylvia paused the show, paused time, to serve everyone a cup of tea. We were still clinking our cups, saucers and spoons occasionally when she wondered, ‘Did the universe really begin with a Big Bang? Or was it a very, very long tea party like Alice in Wonderland?’ I enjoyed the conscious way Sylvia played with the elements of theatre like this, stopping the running of the show through time, and making a new theatrical material out of our audience-created sound effects, to delicately underscore a line dropping poetically, philosophically, a little later.
I was accompanied by my friend Ian at Watch Out. I know that his taste runs more to traditional theatre, and to conventional narratives, and I could feel him being patient with the live art explorations of concepts in Dollywood and This Moment Now. As soon as the next show began and a concrete story began to take shape in the air, I knew this would be one that Ian would enjoy. It was Prelude to a Coat, a premier of the first solo show from Stefanie Mueller of Hoipolloi. Stefanie is one of those performers who commands a lot of theatrical power. Whenever I see her perform, I am rendered completely rapt, so I was extremely interested to see her first solo show, which she wrote and devised.
The stage featured a bright red trenchcoat suspended in the air, and a musician, Dante Rendle-Traynor, who provided a bespoke piano accompaniment to the unfolding story. Stefanie discovered a note in the pocket of a red trenchcoat in a charity shop, written by the woman who had owned it, ‘Elizabeth’. The show traces Stefanie’s explorations of Elizabeth’s life, which was unusual – she was an early scientist, a woman in male-dominated spheres. Starting with the coat, the show unfolds the depths of personal history under this surface symbol. Towards the end, I felt the material unfolded a shade too far, and the storytelling could have been leaner and tighter, but this was a gorgeous show with beautiful writing and thoughtful, elegant staging, which showcased Stefanie’s chameleon-like lyricism as a performer.
I wanted a break pretty badly when it was time for Tribute Acts by TheatreState, and so I decided not to see it, but as the stewards were closing the doors, ennui exploded in my heart at the thought of missing it, and I ran in at the last minute. It turned out to be one of my favourite shows at the festival. It is about two daughters and the relationships they have with their fathers – two real daughters (TheatreState are Cheryl Gallacher and Tess Seddon), interviewing two real fathers (their own fathers), in a show that is completely honest about the broken parts of their hearts that came from the broken parts of their fathers. It is beautiful, deep and a bit heartbreaking, but it is all wrapped in consciously created bubbles of theatricality and self-aware glitz, which added charm, fun…and also artistic/ psychological catharsis in action, in defiance of the heartbreak. It was brilliant, engaging, funny, intelligent and moving.
All of the rushing between shows, the lack of food and water, and the tension of holding wee beyond the point of comfort made me feel a bit ragged and weary by the time I walked into Be Gentle With Me, the premiere of a new show by Ira Brand, collaborating with Gerard Bell. Like Ira’s other work I have seen, it had a tender quality. The show asked questions about the experience of being in a human body, specifically about the states of illness and how we respond to these in ourselves and others, and it was smoothly made…but this show played a theatrical magic trick with me that I am still thinking about two weeks later. Not only was the fourth wall completely dismantled, it felt as is Brand and Bell were reaching across it and metaphorically placing quiet hands on our brows, our shoulders. The tone was peaceful, meditative, nurturing, and Ira and Gerard made it feel like non-theatre, like we were just eavesdropping on reality. It was fascinating, and gentle.
The next show, Our Carnal Hearts by Rachel Mars, was reportedly one of the highlights of the festival, but I was standing in line for a beer at an achingly slow moving bar, while the announcement was made that ‘only the first 70 people would be admitted to the show, so you’d better queue now if you wanted to go in’…and I broke a little at this point, and my longing for Leffe overcame my longing for experimental theatre, and I rebelled and thought, ‘fuck it – guess I’ll have to miss one,’ and stayed in the queue. It turned out that beer and rebellion were a good preparation for what came next.
After Rachel Mars’ show finished, the crowd drifted over to the big, black, cavernous gig room, J1, for the final show of the festival, a scratch of new material from Christopher Brett Bailey for his follow-up to his epic This Is How We Die, a performance/gig with the brilliant working title This Machine Won’t Kill Fascists But It Might Get You Laid. As I walked into the gig room, a steward handed me earplugs and said, ‘you’ll definitely need these.’
I put my earplugs in as the crowd pooled in the centre of four corners, where Chris and each of his three collaborating musicians George Percy, Alicia Jane Turner and Nicolas Heiso Kort, stood quietly. Each performer stood in a white column of light, next to a huge bank of speakers and a guitar suspended on a metal chain. As the crowd quieted, they begin striking the guitar strings with hammers stolen from a dismantled piano (as I learned later).
The mood was serious, avant-garde, and the sound was grand, like the tolling of bells. The dramatic staging, light, materials and huge speaker equipment created a building sense of anticipation. And then they pulled the guitars down, put them on and started playing one by one, at first just Alicia playing a single, fast, repeated note. The others joined in, making a fusion of classical and punk rock, which eventually built into huge, harmonic wall of electric guitar sound. I took out my earplugs after a couple of minutes, and found that the level was set at the final click before the tipping point into ear damage – I enjoyed it so much more, in raw, direct contact with the sound.
This show was a conscious revelling in the ur-cool of rock guitar, and its staging and musicality paid thoughtful attention to the theatre of rock guitar. It had echoes of Philip Glass, with simple, repeating musical motifs that built, layered and evolved into peaks as they travelled through time, within a visually rich and evocative staging. Sometimes, the music dropped into gentle valleys of beautiful, intricate classical ensemble playing, and it was an impressive work of musical composition that also reminded me at times of Richard Strauss and Mahler. But the thing I liked most about it was the physicality of the sound – it was so loud that the vibrations washed through your body, and it felt cathartic, healing, and freeing. The roaring sound made you want to roar, and expressed your roar for you, like loud rock music does.
The sound washed away any possibility of communicating with the other people there, so it gave everyone a free and private space in the midst of the crowd, and in this it felt a bit like an installation, where we all started wandering around, re-configuring as an audience, to stand and look at everything from different angles. I felt reconfigured myself, by the end. Which is what I always love about Watch Out festival. It was my favourite show at the festival, and a brilliant way to end a day of rich, spiky, fascinating and engaging new theatre and performance.