On the eve of the EU Referendum, I attended the sophomore evening of BE Festival – that is, Birmingham European Festival. Any review of the event must surely mention the topicality of its content, and the ways in which it interacts with and intervenes in current debates. Its context becomes an intrinsic part of its content. Its subtext is tangible on stage, and in the stalls.
How to reconcile one’s feelings about In or Out with one’s feelings about the performances—delivered by 24 visiting European companies all in all, throughout the festival—might seem an easy or difficult task, depending on your position. It isn’t as if demonstrations of European arts will suddenly cease to exist should we leave the EU, but there is a definitive sense of openness, positivity and materiality which infuses the festival events (and the festival space) which gives you the genuine warm and fuzzies when thinking of Europe.
Wednesday, 22nd June
I attended four performances on Tuesday evening: Stuff, by Sean Jempton, Situation with Outstretched Arm, by O. Zahn, Transnational Artist Heidi Blumenfeld, by Andrej Tomse, and Overload, by Teatro Sotterraneo. Each was vastly different, and each was wonderful.
The first three of the shows feature only one performer on stage. In the affecting, tender Stuff, Kempton is joined by a variety of props. In Situation, there is only a projection and Isabell Przemus, remarkably demonstrating the ‘saluto romano’ in question for almost a full 50 minutes. It’s discomfiting to watch, but it vitalises the video essay that it foregrounds. Shows of its kind are rare and its simplistic staging helps magnify its power. And in joyful Transnational, Heidi uses four bowling pins (and mountains of personality) to impress and delight her audience.
My favourite performance of the evening has to be Overload, however. (The title has been changed from Reload since the programme was printed.) The whole show is witty, irreverent, smart, and cute. Its visual landscape goes through revolution after revolution. Each fast change brings a laugh, gasp or some other exclamation, and somehow a half-man half-fish, while still facilitating plenty of gags, ends up as the most profoundly touching character. I would have gladly watched Overload two or three times over its 30-minute running time, which is surely the mark of an impeccable piece.
The four performers from Teatro Sotterraneo involve the audience in ways that feel novel, far removed from hokey or pantomime inclusions that one might see in other shows. The same can be said of Stuff, which gives its audience members the chance to have their own shining moment on stage, where everyone leaves a star. Indeed, each performance seemed to have put considerable time into thinking about the ways in which the audience might react to the material, and how to engage as many different persons as possible, in an original manner.
I cannot praise the festival organisers enough, for they positioned the shows in ways which not only seemed to build on one another, to tug you in this direction and that with purpose, but also to leave you in the right frame of mind for exiting into the festival space proper. By the end of Overload, I’d have found it difficult to locate any person not then willing to spend some Karma tokens (the Festival’s unique payment system) on a beer, and cut loose. The space itself is decorated wonderfully.
The programme introductory notes suggest that “the variety in the stage programming aims to provoke reaction and stimulate dialogue about the role of art and how it can inspire, mobilise, move, make is laugh, dream and ultimately change us.” Such high aims are met, and then some.
Timely, and alternately uproarious, emotive, and challenging, the Festival events are the perfect antidote to what has been a long week, a long few months even. Good times with friends and strangers alike, from every corner of Europe, sounds ideal. ★★★★★ Will Amott 23rd June 2016
SATURDAY, 25th June
Having already sampled some of the BE (Birmingham European) Festival’s delicacies earlier in the week, and savoured their innovation and pure sense of fun, I returned on Saturday night for the closing events. To have high expectations is rarely a good thing when it comes to reviewing shows, for even if they are met, there is a sense of… well, expectation being met, of the average, of the minimum. Of course, when those expectations, are surpassed, it’s magical.
Regular patronage of the BE Festival from now on is a must for me, having been so incredibly impressed by the breadth and calibre of material on offer. Individual evening tickets and week passes alike are good value, the festival space itself is full of wonderful little details, and you would be hard pressed to find a warmer, more welcoming social environment.
The evening’s events included the final two competition entries. The first was The Vortex Agitator by Cris Blanco, a clever, pacey show, which uses video to tell two different stories simultaneously, the combination of which unfailingly had the audience doubled over laughing. The second was Theseus Beefcake by PanicLab, an insightful and engaging show, full of interesting questions and told from the heart by two charming and committed performers, but in which (breathlessness aside) the spoken material could do with a little tightening up. Each was 30 minutes long. The last performance of the night, last year’s winner of the BE Festival 1st Prize Quintetto, by TiDA, was a full 60 minutes.
Quintetto‘s praises will surely be sung by everyone who had the pleasure and the privilege to see it last night. To deny its quality would be surprising, but to deny its unconventionality and very feeling of freshness would be to lie. Marco Chenevier is a smart comic performer and accomplished dancer. The stage suits him. He appears effortless in what looks to be an immensely tricky show to have devised, and to carry off. The numerous members of the audience directly involved in the performance, which is made to look like it relies on them, but really relies on his talent and quick thinking, makes it feel like we have all indirectly been allowed to share in the success of something very special. The point Chenevier makes is serious – that funding to the arts and sciences is constantly and increasingly at risk – but he manages to make it in the most joyful way.
Before that final, extended performance, the interval dinner (hosted in a beautiful, communal dining hall temporarily constructed on the Main Stage of the Rep) had its entertainment provided in the form of Pass the Salt by BE Next, a youth theatre initiative. It was an adorable and energetic performance, and the young people involved all looked exactly as they should have felt: immensely proud of themselves. Bravo, kids.
Indeed, the vigour and delight with which the BE Next collective performed Pass the Salt was evocative of the same joie de vivre that pervaded the Festival. Everyone involved seemed to really care not only about their work, but about the audiences watching their work, and how they might react to it. Everyone was considered, everything was concerned – and it paid off.
A total success. Regardless of whatever is going on politically, what position Birmingham and the rest of the United Kingdom find themselves in in relation to Europe, the Birmingham European Festival must return next year. ★★★★★ Will Amott 26th June 2016