I think of BE Festival with a lot of fondness. If you’ve ever been, you’ll know how important the idiosyncrasies of its space are to its identity – the way you enter through the back of Birmingham REP into the warmly decorated scene dock, the communal meal on the main stage, the alternative currency (called karma) that you trade your pounds for at the door. It’s a gesture of welcoming: a way of saying, ‘for the length of the evening you’re in our house.’ BE at Home maintains some of the low-key easygoingness that feels familiar from the festival (and I love that on the live Zoom events, we’re welcomed by name as we enter), but with its events spread out over a week and a half, I can’t help but miss a vital sense of gathering – of the concentrated buzz of a festival. Of course, it’d be unreasonable – preposterous! – to expect a theatre festival to deal with the effects of a public health crisis, adapt their festival for the internet in two months and perfectly preserve all of its feeling and identity. I guess I’m just saying it made me miss those easy summer evenings.
Still, what the BE at Home programme actually offers isn’t so much a shadow of what used to be, but some really canny curation which speaks eloquently, sometimes in direct ways and at others less so, to ways of being within the present moment.
Spanish theatremaker David Espinosa’s A Spectacular Conference is a performance lecture about the development of contemporary theatre and performance in Spain and across Europe, as well as his own journey discovering this history after growing up in a small rural town. Espinosa illustrates each figure (Pina Bausch, Rodrigo Garcia, Tadeusz Kantor, La Fura dels Baus, Odin Teatret) with tacky miniatures and plastic toys; a motorised Frozen Elsa figurine on wheels shuffles around the surface of a table while Espinosa swipes miniature chairs out of its way, imitating a scene from Cafe Müller. As uncertainty and financial stress hangs over the theatre sector in the UK, Espinosa’s talk reminds me of the importance of risk, experimentation, plurality – that we’ll need more of this, not less, and that conservatism will be deadly. It reminds me that art changes the way you look at the world, and how precious that is.
From GIFT to Yard Online and Hester Chillingworth’s Caretaker installation at the Royal Court, durational and one-on-one formats have proven popular online. Here, Darragh McLoughlin’s circus performance Stickman is condensed down to a single, unspectacular trick – balancing a stick on his sternum. Duration makes it a feat, with the performance lasting as long as it takes for the stick to fall off his chest (two and half hours in the end). This is another performance dealing with uncertainty, one unstable element which keeps everything tantalisingly up in the air. But I like how its stakes are really low – there’s an appealing aimlessness to it, as if McLoughlin were dreaming up ever more mundane tricks and tasks to mark passing time in confinement. Francesc Serra Villa’s one-on-one piece, Recall, also deals with time. It’s a kind of cardboard puppet theatre time capsule, in which your memories of yesterday are archived in fragments (it’s actually REALLY hard to speak for four minutes about what you did yesterday). Villa is amassing a museum of incomplete testimonies from confinement – field recordings of stretchy-time.
But for me, the piece that speaks most resonantly to the peculiarities of now is Edurne Rubio’s documentary Ojo Guareña, the live version of which won last year’s festival prize. It follows a group of speleologists (cave researchers – I had to Google that) in the titular cave in Northern Spain. The film is entrancing, a series of static shots in which we watch small orange-clad figures clambering through inky tunnels and cavernous galleries, the sounds of dripping water and crunching boots echoing endlessly. We see sunlight in the opening shot and the closing shot, and that’s about it. The footage is interpolated with talking heads without the heads (sight isn’t as important as sound here), their words popping up as titles against a black screen. It’s about the psychological space of the cave, and the film’s compositional steadiness gives us a flavour of this. This is a space where deep time is felt, where traces of prehistory are undisturbed; at one point, our explorers bag some coal estimated to be somewhere in the region of 15,000 years old. Time goes funny, especially if your head torch runs out of power and you sit it out, waiting for someone to find you (your best bet, safety-wise).
Caves are dangerous places, sure, but also full of possibility. We hear stories from those who grew up under General Franco, and who experienced a kind of political awakening in the caves. In their sunlit lives, they were blind to their own oppression; ‘we didn’t know any other way of life,’ one voice says. But in the caves, they were able to dream and imagine different ways of being. They sung subversive songs, the sound travelling deep into the cave. I love the idea that a cave can teach you things, or enable you to teach yourself things. This Giorgio Agamben quote opens a piece by Augusto Corrieri on living in ‘empty time’;
“I turn the light on in a dark room: of course, the lit room is no longer the dark room, I have lost it forever. And yet is this not precisely the same room? Is the dark room not, in fact, the real content of the lit room?…”
How beautiful the idea that darkness doesn’t extinguish light, but light darkness – that darkness is a place to live.
Watching Ojo Guareña, I think of other representations of caves – the one in Philippe Quesne’s Night of the Moles, a fantasy playground, or perhaps refuge, where giant moles shoot around on scooters, make hallucinatory shadow-puppet theatre and play the theremin; the cave in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives that Boonmee goes to when it’s his time to die, where the membrane between the living world and the dead is as thin as a mosquito net. These are liminal spaces where transformations occur and connections made across time and planes of being. Now more than ever, we can surely learn something from caves about making friends with darkness and uncertainty, and how to imagine different ways of being when we come out into the light again.