Flare Festival kicks off with a pairing of the whimsical and the sinister. ONE, a solo performed by Lisa Verbelen of Dutch theatre collective BOG, is a playful musical meditation on time, movement and loneliness. It’s followed by K.U.R.S.K.’s Leopard Murders, an interrogation of right-wing populism that comes with a trigger warning about violent and offensive language. The lurch from harmonies to hate speech is a jarring one, setting each piece in a surprising context. It’s also, perhaps, a hint of the varied scope of the festival to come.
ONE begins in silence and darkness. And then there is light. And sound. Stepping nervously up to the microphone, Verbelen begins to make little noises – hesitant at first, then increasingly musical. After a while, another voice (also Verbelen’s, but pre-recorded) joins in. Then another, and another. The voices meet and part, harmonising effortlessly while text and score scroll across on a projection screen above Verbelen’s head.
Technically and musically, it’s impressive. Using a simplified form of spectrum analysis, dashes, lines and wiggles represent on screen the sounds uttered by Verbelen and her other, ghostly selves. The timing is astonishingly precise: we can see the next sounds approaching on screen and watch and listen as Verbelen hits each note at just the right moment. There’s also humour and ingenuity in the marriage of music and image, as the squiggles on screen form pictures to which Verbelen gives voice.
Thematically, though, it feels quite shallow. The snippets of text strive for philosophical reflection, but their observations are the stuff of self-help books and wellness bloggers. Everything is moving, we’re told, and all we ever have is one moment in a long line of moments. It might as well be an invitation to live in the now, to be – the word of the moment – mindful. There’s also something disingenuous about the framing of an act of virtuosity within the familiar performance tropes of awkwardness and failure. ONE would be more compelling as a simple demonstration of vocal skill, rather than attempting to be something it isn’t.
From simplicity to complexity. Leopard Murders is a stew of messy ideas: colonialism, racism, fascism, popular protest, truth and post-truth. It’s also about inheritance, both genetic and ideological. Performer Timo Krstin is here to tell us about his maternal grandfather George Ebrecht: would-be colonialist, Nazi speech-writer, senior SS officer and post-war peace campaigner. Krstin pieces together his ancestor’s fragmented past, drawing from Ebrecht’s unsuccessful novel about his time in East Africa in the 1920s, the little that is known about his contribution to the Nazi regime, and the stack of speeches he later wrote for the West German peace movement. Krstin also explores the traces of his grandfather in his own character – his interest in the natural world, his desire to write, his leftist and pacifist politics.
“The Nazi comparison is the thought-terminating cliché.” That’s the final line of a song at the show’s conclusion, and the provocation around which it revolves. Can anything be learned or gained from comparing the far-right populist movements of today to Hitler and the Nazis? Can the politics of hate be tracked like DNA, passed down from generation to generation?
K.U.R.S.K. have no simple answers, because there are none. Instead, they present us with a shape-shifting lecture, weaving between historical documents, personal anecdote and ominous speculation. Chatting casually to us, Krstin is likeable, unassuming, but also somehow slippery. Little verbal tics – his constant use of the phrase “of course” – seem to hint at something more. This is a show about political rhetoric, after all, and so I’m on guard against seductive speechifying. But rather than offering one big reversal or rug-pull, Leopard Murders is a constantly mutating thing, provoking question after question. It blurs seemingly stable distinctions: past and present, right and left, us and them.
In perhaps its only similarity with ONE, Leopard Murders also has some of the low-fi hallmarks of contemporary performance. Krstin and his fellow performers talk directly and sometimes awkwardly to the audience, often clutching pieces of paper or post-it notes, while a no-frills slideshow plays behind them. When conveying the power and rage of populist oratory, though, K.U.R.S.K. break out of this limiting form with stunning force. Our senses are assaulted with light and sound, while Krstin’s microphone-gripping figure is utterly transformed. It’s an alarming theatrical demonstration of the violence words can possess, now as much as then.
ONE and Leopard Murders are at the Flare Festival, Manchester, until July 5th. For more details, click here.