Feature in Issue 22-3 | Autumn 2010

Dorothy Max Prior heads to Ipswich for a Pulsating weekend.

Ah, a weekend in sunny Ipswich – who could resist? Pulse festival comes at the start of the summer, hot on the heels of a swathe of May festivals – Brighton, Norfolk & Norwich, Bristol’s Mayfest, and Manchester’s Queer Up North – with a packed programme that spans end-of-May to mid-June. It’s an eclectic mix, covering new writing, physical and devised theatre, dance, live art, circus – and some things that are all or none of the above.

My brief weekend sampling the festival’s delights gives a pretty good picture of the remit: there’s a great spread of artforms and modes of practice; there are premieres, work-in-progress showings and touring shows; there is work that has been developed in the East of England region, work from other British regions, and a smattering of international companies – including the renowned Ontroerend Goed, here with their controversial speed date cum group therapy show, Internal.

I arrive Friday night, in time for a Paine’s Plough presentation of readings from four writers – Molly Davies, Joel Horwood, Ian McHugh, and Niki Werenowska – presenting under the banner ‘Come to Where I’m From’ (a six-month national project involving 61 playwrights from across the UK, each invited to return to their home towns to write plays about the places that shaped them). So a sense of place, and in most cases a use of the self as a starting point, is on the menu. Interesting in a Radio 4 short story kind of way…

Later that evening, I’m on more familiar territory with the New Wolsey’s circus-theatre project, Orpheus and Eurydice. The company pulled together for this project are theatre director Peter Rowe, aerialist/circus director Vicki Amedume, video designer Mark Morreau, together with numerous luminaries of the physical/devised theatre and contemporary circus world, including Sandy Grierson, James Roberts, and various members of Ockham’s Razor. The myth is one which has been used as a starting point for many physical/visual theatre companies – dreamthinkspeak, Wildworks, and Faulty Optic being three that spring to mind instantly – but this doesn’t put me off: if anything, I am excited to see what next could be done with this archetypal story of love, loss and the pull of worldly desires.

This time round, the story is set in the world of rock stardom and high fashion. God of music Orpheus (Alex Poulter) is just that: a contemporary god, singing his heart out high above us (on a scaffold bridge across the upstage area). Eurydice (Meline Danielewicz) is the queen of the catwalk: strong and sassy yet with an edgy fragility (the balance played with great skill and sensitively). She’s never off-camera, and Mark Morreau’s excellent live-feed video captures its intrusiveness beautifully. Pre-recorded film is also integrated wonderfully well into the performance text – in particular a harrowing descent for Orpheus who seemingly hurtles down the side of a block of flats. Circus and theatre are often uncomfortable bedfellows, but the company pull it off beautifully: there’s nothing in this show that doesn’t have a good reason for being there, and everything is executed with flair and confidence. If there is a criticism it is that the show as seen has something of a ‘trailer’ quality, précising or short-handing much of the story. But of course it is early days…

Later that evening, sex and love were again on the menu, but served up in a very different recipe. Sex Idiot, by East of England artist Bryony Kimmings, is not for the faint-hearted. It weaves Bryony’s pre-existing cabaret sketches and performance art vignettes together into a one-woman theatre show reflecting on her sexual history – all kickstarted by her discovery that she had a common sexually transmitted infection. (At least, the presumption is that this is all autobiographical, although now that she’s crossed over the line from performance art to theatre, who knows?). It’s a merry melange of costume changes (from birdwoman to camp matador); bad-taste songs; comic dances; ironic performative actions that reference all sorts of other artists, (from Annie Sprinkle’s speculum to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues – this reworked as a litany of the vast array of words and phrases for female genitalia, some less familiar than others: ‘velvet sausage wallet’ was new to me). Toss in a no-holds-barred audience participation episode (moustache made from donated pubic hair, anyone?) and you have a show that is about as far removed from a nice night out at the theatre as you could imagine. This is the first outing here at Pulse, and on this showing there is still a way to go, so it was great to see what a month at the Edinburgh Fringe did for the show – by the end of the run there it had really settled in, with the cricks in the structure eased out, and Bryony confidently in charge of her material.

The following day starts bright and early with a rehearsed reading of Invisible, a co-production between Transport Theatre and the New Wolsey. Written by Croatian playwright Tena Štivičić and directed by Douglas Rintoul, it tells the story, on the one hand, of a group of immigrants struggling to survive in the UK, and on the other, a trio of well-to-do English liberals struggling with their relationships. Darren Johnston of Array is credited as choreographer, but it isn’t apparent from this showing quite how that is working – although we are reassured in the post-show discussion that his influence is there.

Also from the East of England region, 30 Bird Productions’ Poland 3 Iran 2 is about football (appropriately enough, this being a Saturday afternoon in World Cup month). But it’s more, so much more – a beautiful exploration of boyhood, of family eccentricities, of migration, of political resistance, and of a father-son relationship as experienced by two men, one of Polish heritage (visual artist Chris Dobrowolski) and one Iranian (30 Bird’s director, Mehrdad Seyf). The show takes the form of a performative lecture set in a (real) Ipswich pub, the two men eagerly swapping the remote control to take charge of the Powerpoint. Delights include an on-site ‘toilet in a shed’ kitted out with a model train track; in-depth on-screen analysis of Subbuteo accessories through the ages; and some wonderfully distressed film footage of the legendary Poland-Iran football match that is the uniting moment for our two heroes.

And so the final whistle blows, football shirts are exchanged, match over – time to leave. My 36-hour sojourn in Suffolk is done. There was so much that I missed at Pulse – but I’m glad to have at least made it to the opening weekend, where the focus was on locally-made work. What I saw showed me a vibrant festival offering a little something for everyone, right across the board.

Pulse 2010 ran 27 May to 12 June. Dorothy Max Prior attended the opening weekend 27 & 28 May 2010. Applications for Pulse 2011 are open now. See www.pulsefringe.com

In the last issue of Total Theatre Magazine (Summer 2010), we mentioned that a work-in-progress showing of Free Time Radical, a co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre, would be appearing at Pulse 2010. Sadly this wasn’t possible because of injury, and the show will now premiere in 2011 (venues tbc, but will include a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe). We would also like to correct the mistaken credit to Matt Ball as director – the piece is directed by Jamie Wood for The Frequency D’Ici (previously known as Top of the World). Apologies to both Matt Ball and Jamie Wood for the mis-information!

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Issue 22-3
p. 12 - 13