Feature in Issue 20-4 | Winter 2008

I spent a good part of my time in Winchester seeing previouslyseen things that I knew I liked – due to the admirable support of the Without Walls consortium many of the best shows on this year’s street arts circuit were playing all the major festivals. At some point on Saturday (the fullest day in this four-day programme), I realised that I needed to get on and see some new work… or work that was new to me, at least.

So first up was Nutkhut’s Movieplex. A two-part piece set in its own specially constructed ‘hut’ by the riverbank. In the first ‘room’ we encounter a performance-installation, a mock-reality documentation of the life of Shanta Rao Dutt, a Mumbai-born filmmaker who supposedly has played a key role in every single innovation in film over the twentieth century. Then we get to see a film. I like the installation (an old curiosity shop of Victorian bric-a-brac: pink satin gloves, globes, bones, feathers, and fans), but find the performers unconvincing. The film is an interesting sepia-tinted pastiche, a clever joke; but a joke that wears a bit thin. There seems to be the potential here for something far stronger: somehow the piece is less than the sum of its parts.

Back on the streets, I encounter Wet Picnic’s The Dinner Party. It starts as a walkabout, as a great circular dining table and chandelier are dragged through the streets, accompanied by folks in evening dress (it all has something of an Adams Family feel). Settling down in a market square, our hostess for the party introduces herself: ladies and gentlemen, meet Ursula Harrington-Carrington-Larrington-Barrington-Schmarington – played by Jude Barrington-Smuts (and yes, that is her real name), who is an absolutely natural street theatre performer, trolling around in her swanky black cocktail dress, bantering with the audience and knowing exactly who to pick on for a little bit of light amusement. In fact, all of the cast of four (three, plus a stooge in the audience who is taken into the dinner party to be tormented mercilessly, and forced into an unpleasant encounter with mayonnaise) have a confidence and presence that belies their experience (this being their first street show). Essentially, they’ve grasped the core requirements of street theatre and have executed those requirements with panache: an interesting set-up (in this case, the walkabout section of the piece); an eye-catching set that creates an instant picture of the essence of the show; carefully controlled yet seemingly effortless interaction with the crowd; a short, sharp twenty-minute static show that is witty, surreal, sometimes a little risqué and always very funny. The Dinner Party was my discovery of the day; a delightful show from a company destined to go far (although at a slow pace, with that bloody great table to lug around).

Strolling back through the Cathedral Green I come across Catalan company Kamchàtka. An overcoat-clad, long-faced line of people walk slowly across the grass, each carrying a suitcase. They approach a bunch of picnickers, looking intently at each in turn. The group put their cases down, slowly and in perfect unison open them, and each takes out the only object inside his/her case – a photograph. Each scrutinises the photograph, then again the picnickers. One is singled out, silently hugged by all of the ‘overcoats’. The group painfully take their leave of the lost ‘friend’ and go. It is such a simple piece of theatre, but performed so carefully and beautifully that most of the picnickers sit in stunned silence, tears in their eyes. Physical theatre at its best: so much can be said without words.

Across the way was something completely different. Setting up his pitch was someone dressed as a medieval fool, bells and all, who was mumbling to himself and tipping an assortment of scrappy toys and kid’s musical instruments onto the ground. This is Rumpel the Jester and this is what he does: bad juggling; playing the kazoo/ toy guitar; putting his spring-boing shoes on and off and jumping around; fiddling with wind-up toys that then hop around the space; talking through his spooky voice-distorter mic. Basically, the setting up is the show, with much fiddling and little bursts of action here and there, and it goes on for hours – really for hours. People come and go (go, mostly) children gather round a kindred spirit (they are embraced into the action in a childlike and ‘unperformative’ way, which is very touching). Some of us stay, and stay, and stay; mesmerised, determined to see it out to the end. There is no end. For all I know, he’s still there. The antithesis of clean, glib, arty ‘outdoor performance’ – long may he reign as court jester in this increasingly sanitised world.

Referenced Festivals
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Issue 20-4
p. 38