Feature in Issue 23-3 | Autumn 2011

Fred Dalmasso attends the inaugural Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival.

Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival, whose mission is to strengthen and support both Nottingham’s theatre community and contemporary international talent, presented a wide array of theatre productions, performances, visual art installations, films, concerts, and workshops over the two weeks of this, its first year. I saw NEAT 11 as a powerful reminder of performing arts’ imprint upon Europe’s political landscape and of the emancipatory path they cut through history. Ulrike Meinhof, Eamon Collins, Woyzeck, Tadeusz Kantor and from afar, Andy Warhol, were as many spectres haunting the festival.

NEAT 11 hosted the UK premiere of Blast Theory’s Ulrike and Eamon Compliant, an ambulatory performance based on the lives of Ulrike Meinhof (Red Army Faction) and Eamon Collins (Irish Republican Army) where radicalism clashes with the sedate urban atmosphere of a European city during office hours. The performance starts in Nottingham Playhouse where you enter a plain wooden cell. To begin, you press dial on the phone: you are told to leave the theatre and asked whether you would like to be Ulrike or Eamon. I chose Ulrike. Over the next thirty minutes you receive a number of phone calls that lead you through the city, engaging you as Ulrike and prompting decisions. The instructions are given only once and with the noise of the traffic stifling the sound, the adrenalin rises. You are asked at some point to record a kind of personal manifesto and encouraged not to be shy as you enunciate loudly and clearly your own contribution to ‘the concept of the urban guerrilla’. Finally, you head to ‘the room where questions get asked’. An enigmatic figure appears at a street corner and leads you to the theatre back door, walking ten yards in front of you. You are shown into a wooden cell identical to the first one in the theatre lobby and invited to sit down: it suddenly becomes utterly personal as you realise you have left your rebel persona at the door. You are not addressed as Ulrike anymore, but abruptly asked how far you would personally go for whomever or whatever cause you think you are ready to fight for. Would you be able to plan ahead or solely rely upon your instincts? What would make you think again? This is a punch in the stomach of your inflated revolutionary ego. Ulrike and Eamon Compliant combines the urgency of urban guerilla warfare with the melancholia of the daily grind. Blast Theory makes the most of the local surroundings in devising a perilous journey that digs deep into one’s political consciousness. Here, the power of illusion fends off political mysticism and forces us to face what it takes not only to throw one word or one stone in protest, but to organise ourselves as resistance. An incredibly powerful and insightful work of art and politics. Without instructions through my mobile phone to direct me anymore, my wander through the festival was left to chance, yet Blast Theory had set the tone.

Local (and international) company Gob Squad presented Gobsquad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) – an attempt at a live re-enactment of Andy Warhol’s filmed performance, Kitchen. This reconstitution of the 1960s is presented as a demystification: the film projected to the audience is shot live behind the screen which becomes more porous a barrier as the piece unfolds. Gob Squad’s thought-provoking enquiry is hilarious and touching at times and when the performers ultimately resort to audience members to stand in for them ‘guess-performing’ the original Kitchen, the mystery of ‘here and now’ remains as acute as ever. As if by magic, the ‘volunteers’ exude a screen/stage presence, which transcends technology and demonstrates the mysterious power of theatre’s immediacy. Gob Squad’s Kitchen is an uplifting participatory celebration of the moment. It is cinema processed and released live by theatre.

Berlin’s major building-based theatre, Deutsches Theater, presented Woyzeck – a spiraling run into madness. The stage is built like a pit that throws the characters at each other. The prologue sets up the whole piece within a sinister fairground atmosphere and director Jorinde Dröse succeeds in showing humankind as a freak show. Her production is a take on the 2000 adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play into a musical by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Waits’ lyrics complement Büchner’s text so well that it is difficult to know for sure who wrote what. The live music is enthralling and the songs add a gritty immediacy to the story. The acting is physically intense and the scene when the farcical drum major forces Woyzeck to drink is one of extreme violent simplicity to the point that Moritz Grove seems to be drowning under our very eyes. Wilson’s imprint is kept to a minimum as Dröse’s staging relies upon the visceral rather than the mechanical. Throughout, there are no suspended movements or any kind of aesthetic respite; instead there is a constant rush of emotions tempered only by the intrinsic distance of Waits’ lyrics. His poetry, which culminates in a final image of the earth as an overturned piss-pot, leaves a coarse and greasy mark upon the production.

Also featured were Nottingham-based company Reckless Sleepers. As last statements go, The Last Supper is an eternal ending which fails to ignite. In this antechamber of death, last words are pronounced with a gripping casualness. We hear the last declarations of historical figures; famous and less famous people one after the other. All equal in facing death. At regular intervals, a chef brings the last meal ordered by a prisoner on death row to whoever drew the corresponding execution number upon entering. However interesting the real or invented anecdotes at the end of the line might be, there is more in the formula than in the actual course of the evening. What remains is the lingering image of the performers endlessly swallowing last words written on little pieces of paper: when our time is up we might have to swallow back all the insignificant statements made over a lifetime and probably choke on them to death. Theatre at its wordiest.

With Theatr Nowy’s Faust, directed by Janusz Wisniewski, the threshold is passed and we enter into a theatre of death. The production seemed largely to draw on the ideas and aesthetics of the creator of Wielopole, Wielopole (Tadeusz Kantor) but remains an enigmatic tribute as the legendary Polish director’s name is not mentioned in the play programme, which includes a long interview with the director and over twenty extracts of reviews from different countries. Yet the play is a succession of Kantoresque quotations using Goethe’s Faust as a narrative. On stage, a theatre director figure signals the actors, rectifies the position of chairs exactly as Kantor used to do. Inspired by Kantor’s The Dead Class, the costumes and make-up are particularly efficient in conjuring up a world of death. Faustian scenes are interspersed by processions of old human figures including an eternally wounded soldier, an old bride and twin brothers, as if Kantor’s characters were parading all together leading to Kantor-Goya-esque animated tableaux. While the beginning is very promising, the repetitive alternating between phantasmagoric processions and realistic scenes loses its momentum after a while. This production illustrates the fact that Kantoresque theatre is hardly compatible with a linear narrative, apart perhaps in the scenes involving Miroslaw Kropielnicki as Mephistopheles and his other-worldly physicality and voice. This type of theatre is already a biographical theatre of quotations so any escalation in that direction is risky. Nevertheless, Polish theatre tradition encapsulates like no other the European history of the 20th century. Its aesthetics has retained the power to reach us and this production of Faust does not leave the audience unscathed.

To end on a more joyful note, Maps by Catalan dance and cross-artform company Nat Nus Dansa is an extended indoor version of SLOT, their ‘street performance for everyone’ and somehow sums up what it has meant and still means to be European: the produce of incessant to-ing and fro-ing of suitcases across borders for leisure or necessity. In the context of recent mass movements in Madrid or Athens, it is highly significant that the argument that arises among performers tired of following misleading directions is punctuated by a fierce ‘Ya basta!’ (‘Enough!’) – one of the rare words uttered. The tension is defused as one of the performers hears the word ‘pasta’ instead, leading to a reconciliatory pretend meal with endless juggling of plates, bowls and utensils to the rhythm of hilarious munching noises. Maps is a clownesque tribute of palpable sweat to the inalterable resilience of human bodies in transit.

NEAT 11 is a vibrant testimony to theatre’s ability to cross borders and push boundaries.

Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival (NEAT 11) took place 26 May –12 June 2011 at venues across the city. The festival was developed by Giles Croft, Artistic Director of Nottingham Playhouse.

NEAT will be a biennial festival, and is led by Nottingham Playhouse (and other major Nottingham venues) in partnership with Nottingham City Council and One Nottingham, and is funded by the Arts Council England, Nottingham City Council and the European Theatre Convention (ETC).

An after-note: Belarus Free Theatre were scheduled to open the festival at Lakeside Arts Centre but had their visas and passports revoked and became stateless, so the festival had to cancel the performances. The company were finally allowed to enter the UK and were included as a postponed addition to the festival, performing at the Nottingham Playhouse in July.

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Issue 23-3
p. 32 - 33