Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2010

Feature in Issue 22-2 | Summer 2010

Dorothy Max Prior encounters a festival city with countless pleasures in hidden corners.

Ah, a spiegeltent! Every festival should have one… Norfolk & Norwich Festival’s Salon Perdu, like its sisters (there’s a number of these lovely things wandering the world), is a splendid construction of wood and mirrors, furnished with red plush booths – a perfect setting for music, cabaret and the sort of theatre show that likes its audience close by and in-the-round.

La Vie, by Quebecois circus-theatre company Les 7 Doigts de la Main, is one such show – a breathtaking 90-minute investigation of lunacy, lust and lives lived in limbo, played out above and around (and often with) the audience. Death is a cabaret, we learn from our Master of Ceremonies, a white-suited demon with a penchant for pithy put-downs. (To coughing woman: ‘You have something stuck in your throat? You want me to get it out with my tongue?’)

Our joker friend is here to tot up the karmic accounts – we are all, performers and audience alike, dead and stuck in purgatory ‘the flight to hell that never quite gets there’. We meet a succession of characters doomed to act out the last few moments of their lives, trying to buy their way out of limbo with the amazing graces of their circus tricks and turns: the DIY nut who fell from his roof (a rubber-legged clown with a tendency to stick nails up his nose); the woman who attempted to flee her apartment by shimmying down knotted sheets (a good excuse for a brilliant aerial silks act); the plane crash victim (a sensuous equilibrist who snakes around balance handles and wheelchair); the victim of the mental health system (a mellifluous contortionist straight-jacketed into a hospital bed); and the suicidal lady-of-the-night (a dance and acrobatics queen who pops up all over the place, noose always at the ready). The relationships between Mr Dodgy DIY, Mr Devil, and Ms Suicidal Burlesque provide the through-line to the show, played out through some of the best acrobalance, stage fighting and clown work that you are likely to see anywhere – astonishingly sexy, frantically funny and hair-raisingly visceral, at times almost to the point of nausea. Marvellous stuff!

So that was purgatory, and now back to the real world – although the garden world outside the spiegeltent has a rather surreal feel… For a start, there’s a strange deconstructed car cum DJ booth parked up, vintage vinyl tracks booming out into the night (Radio Barkas). Then there’s the carousel of carved fairy-tale creatures (Theater Froe Froe), a quizzical labyrinth (El Laberint by Companyia Itinerania), and a bandstand decorated with neon signs that exhort us to START A REVOLUTION.

Neon Signs is one of two solo projects by Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment featured in the festival. (The other is A Short Message Spectacle (SMS), an imaginary performance delivered by text message throughout the festival – ‘virtual events taking place in diverse locations across an equally imaginary city’.) On the following morning I go on a quest to find the rest of the signs, cunningly sited across the city, and manage to locate three more. In the window of Jarrolds department store – flanked by a display of espadrilles, gaily-coloured luggage, and Hawaiian shirts – red neon letters call out to the passer-by: WAIT HERE I HAVE GONE TO GET HELP. Just a few minutes away, in the window of the Book Hive, blue letters implore: PLEASE COME BACK I AM SORRY ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE, and in an empty shopfront on a busy road near the station is a sheet of plain white plasterboard on which red neon proclaims: YOU WILL LIVE FOREVER. The appeal of the project is the gorgeous play on public and private space – there you stand, held still by words that reach out and grab you by the throat, whilst busy shoppers and commuters scurry by, oblivious.

Public art is a feature of the festival, and another commendable piece is Kurt Perscke’s RedBall, in which a 15-foot inflatable red ball appears daily in a different city site – on the day I saw it, wedged between the end-house of a Georgian terrace and a quaint pink-and-blue jeweller’s shop. Of course it makes you look anew at the architecture it stands with or against, and raises questions about changing landscapes – but most of all it makes you grin with delight, and wish that you could be as unselfconscious in your appreciation as the three-year-old boy I witnessed punch the ball, then jump in the air shouting ‘it’s a big red ball, it’s a big red ball!’. Yes, yes – I feel that way too!

The Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2010 ran 7-22 May. www.nnf10.org.uk

This article in the magazine

Issue 22-2
p. 27