All things weird and wonderful

Feature in Issue 8-4 | Winter 1996

Stockton-on-Tees was brought to life for a week of theatre, music and comedy last Summer. Performer Jonny Hoskins was there to see the scores of colourful and wacky artists from around the world who converged for the Stockton International Riverside Festival.

There’s no business like show business and there’s no place on earth like Stockton-on-Tees. Put the two together and you’ve got a sure-fire recipe for an unusual event. That this gritty North Eastern industrial town should be the annual host of such an event can only be a good thing. Despite a diverse range of events the Festival programme was unified by a shared appreciation of the weird and the wonderful. One shop window was filled with four identical bright blue men, you were unable to tell which was the real one until he moved. Meanwhile, Legs on the Wall were abseiling down a block of flats, while the Fabulous Stiltoneers were playing music high off the ground, providing family fun with their silly hats and comic repartee.

Germany’s Theatre Titanick had four years of funding to create Titanick in which a ship was built and sank with 300,000 litres of water pumped from the Tees spurting through every part of the gargantuan set (which also caught fire). Unfortunately the whole piece was let down by the music and the vastly impressive technical aspect of the spectacle took precedence over any engaging drama between the characters.

I very much enjoyed the highly flamboyant and gratuitous statement 3D Specs made against popular culture. Two characters made an escape in a mini which revolved fifteen feet in the air, piled high with everything but the kitchen sink. All of which fell to pieces amidst flares and fire crackers whilst eight television monitors on mechanical arms were raised to about 40 feet before being dropped to the ground!

Stiltwalking, fireworks and acrobatics became everyday sights in Stockton, emphasising in many shows a lack of dramatic engagement both in performance and in structure. Without a dramatic or at least a symphonic structure, a piece is no more interesting than a demonstration of costumes, skills and effects. The work of Scarabeus, I believe, is a prime example of this problem. They perform with technical brilliance and create beautiful visual images, but their work often lacks life. I longed for their piece to come alive but the performance remained purely technical. A calm oasis was Meggopolis, a fantastic inflated PVC structure you could get lost in. You could walk around or lie down in its many brightly coloured chambers and relax to ambient music. Another brilliant installation was Cinema Dada – two fifteen-seat cinemas inside a moving sculpture made out of a shipping container showing a twenty-minute surrealistic film.

Three shows in the Festival stood out as excellent, each in its own way, but the common skill each company shared was their ability to bridge the gap between performer and spectator. Australia’s Strange Fruit created moving and unforgettable images on top of four-metre high flexible poles. The whole piece was sublime. Comedy duo acrobats Skate Naked split my sides with their quick fire anarchic humour, all the while performing extremely high standard tricks. For a finale they did handstands on cigar boxes on top of a tall metal frame, with sparklers up their bums! Teatr Biuro Podrozy from Poland performed in the municipal car park and had their audience in tears with Carmen Funebre, their tragic portrayal of war-torn Bosnia. Bold and unextravagant it was full of disturbingly appropriate images, absolutely beautiful and clear in their simplicity. The actors showed a depth of feeling, honesty, humility and presence I have only ever seen in Eastern European and Russian theatre. The experience, open-heartedness and belief they invest in their art gives a profundity and clarity of expression we can only strive to attain in the West. So much theatre seems unimportant by comparison.

The Festival closed with the crazy antics of Russian aerialist Ramon Kelvniks who performed high above the High Street, and the French group Plasticiens Volants (some of them dancing on stilts for two hours) led thousands of people through the streets with their 150 foot inflatable monster. You just had to be there! Maybe next time, eh?…