Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.
‘Once upon a time there were people between birth and death. We are those people. We are here, and we have come together to remember and forget.’
Thus starts Funeral, the latest work by Flemish masters Ontroerend Goed to arrive at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The multi-award-winning company have shocked, surprised and enchanted audiences for the past two decades with a series of radically different shows, and Funeral adds another notch to their belt of successes.
The show, which like all of the Big in Belgium programme is presented at Zoo Southside, takes the form of a secular rite of passage ceremony, with geranium-scented hand towels, candles, spirals of petal confetti, and a number of ‘celebrants’ guiding us and leading off with a succession of litanies and small rituals. There are echoes of Welfare State International’s Dead Good Guides, and Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy of marking key moments in life through ritual. These ideas, very current in contemporary counter-culture, have been taken and woven skilfully into an immersive theatrical experience. Much of the spoken text takes the form of lists. There’s a beautiful call and response on the markers of those absent: the smell of Elnett hairspray, her yellow jacket with the broken zip, his blue eyes shining through his spectacles, her stale cheese biscuits in that old tin. A box of possessions is unpacked and listed: a Polaroid camera, some glucose tablets, a toy diplodocus. Everything is an event, not a thing, we are told. That sneeze, that explosion, that relationship. Yes, but even that stone. It might take a long time, but one day it will be dust. We too are an ‘event’ on this earth. We are finite. All is finite.
The piece is written, designed, directed and enacted with a wonderful care and attention to detail. We are engaged in the process – walking the spiral, singing in Esperanto (a touch of genius), and adding the names of our own dearly departed into the mix. But we are always held. We are here, remembering and forgetting in communion.
Also part of the Big in Belgium programme, and also addressing matters of life and death – albeit in a very different way – is SKaGeN’s The Van Paemel Family, a highly inventive reworking of a classic Flemish play (by Cyriel Buysse). Set in 1903, in brings us a Belgium divided by class and language, depicting a fierce social struggle for workers’ rights played out through the personal struggles of the Van Paemels, an impoverished farming family exploited by the landed gentry they work for. There is an enormous cast of characters, but only one live actor – the brilliant Valentijn Dhaenens, seen previously in BigmoutH and SmallWar. A screen shaped like a simple drawing of a house brings us the family, a portrait projected onto that screen like a classic Flemish painting – father, mother, a number of adult children (one playing the accordion), and the odd stray cockerel – and Dhaenens starts the show in his first live incarnation as errant son Edward, who joins the socialist workers fighting in the streets, much to the shame of his father. He later embodies the French-speaking Baroness with equal skill – her disgust at the smell of the farm and the noise of the animals is brilliant. Finally he becomes Father, whose misplaced loyalty to his bosses, despair at his poverty, and anger at his children (who variously desert the army, flee to America, get jailed for joining the socialist uprising, and have a child out of wedlock when raped by the Baron’s son) is played out perfectly.
The relationship between live action and onscreen moving image is worked skilfully, and shifts in scale in the projected video are used to great effect to enhance the power dynamics of the characters. When Mother is seriously ill, she is an enormous figure on screen, her family sitting around the hills of her body like Lilliputians. When the soldiers arrive, their faces loom large, an intimidating presence.
In our own era of class struggles and dilemmas around fighting poverty and exploitation, it is good to be reminded of the struggles of the past, and to see the relevance to our life and times. Our current dilemmas might manifest in different ways, yet at their heart is the same issue. Too few own too much and exploit too many. SKaGeN show us also that political and socially conscious theatre doesn’t have to take a naturalist form – the physical and visual tricks of the trade of a ‘total theatre’ can be successfully used to tell difficult stories, as witnessed here.
This is also very much the case for JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, brought to Assembly Hall by the South African Baxter Theatre Centre, in collaboration with puppet masters Handspring Puppet Company. The show is written and directed by Lara Foot, with puppetry design and direction by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring.
Coetzee’s 1983 novel brings us the story of Michael K, a poor ‘coloured’ man, born with a cleft lip, who has spent his childhood in institutions, and as an adult works as a gardener in Cape Town, also caring for his mother Anna, who works as a domestic servant. As the country descends into civil war and martial law is imposed, Michael’s mother becomes ill. Michael decides to quit his job and escape the city to return his mother to her birthplace, which she says was on a farm Prince Albert. Thus, the hero’s journey from Cape Town to countryside (and back again) begins…
The story is brought to life brilliantly in this production, with an ensemble of nine actors and actor-puppeteers moving effortlessly from verbal storytelling to puppet manipulation to physical action, swapping roles and demonstrating a high level of skill in all fields. Of course, the puppets are wonderful – this is Handspring, after all, famous for their creation of the War Horse puppets, and of the magnificent Little Amal, a giant puppet of a child refugee who has been walking the world for the past year or so. They are manipulated using the traditional three-person Bunraku inspired method, and there are many moments of playfulness where the puppeteers’ presence is acknowledged, such as a lovely sharing of food scene. The live action is augmented by a clever set, lighting and sound design, and a great use of projection, depicting the cityscapes and urban landscapes of South Africa that our hero passes through.
The horrors of Apartheid – the segregation, the abuse, the demands for permits to travel anywhere at all – is brought to us clearly, neither over-dramatised not shied away from, just presented for us to witness. The horrors of a war-torn South Africa in the 1960s and 70s – the abusive soldiers, the theft of what little savings a poor old woman might have, the mindless destruction of water pumps and crops, the work camps, the railroad chain-gangs – pile up, one after the other.
But we do not sink into a mire of despair. There is hope, and there is humour. The hope comes in Michael’s relationship with the land – these seeds will grow long after I am gone, muses our gardener-hero – the love of the land and its ability to regenerate being the key signifier of hope in this adaptation. The humour is there throughout. The building of a cart to carry Michael’s mother Anna across country, cobbled together from an old tin bath and bicycle wheels, is great – and Anna is a great comic character, squealing and moaning and teasing her only son. Even in the darkest moments, touches of humour alleviate the pain and the horror.
As is the case with Little Amal, the puppet Michael K arouses enormous feelings of empathy and love in the human spectator – puppets have this extraordinary ability. And as with SKAGEN’s The Van Paemel Family, here is a clear demonstration that naturalistic theatre is not the only, or even the first, choice for successfully bringing work with a strong political and social message to audiences.
All human life – and death, an intrinsic part of life – is here to behold in these three very different Edinburgh Fringe 2023 shows.
Featured image (top): Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K
Ontroerend Goed: Funeral, and SKaGeN/ Valentin Dhaenens: The Van Paemel Family were both seen at Zoo Southside on 8 August 2023, as part of the Big in Belgium programme.
Baxter Theatre, Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Handspring Puppet Company: JM Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K was seen at Assembly Hall, 7 August 2023.
We’re entering the final week of the last ever London International Mime Festival, which is bowing out with a bang. Dorothy Max Prior reflects on work seen to-date
January in London: cold, damp, miserable – same as it ever was. But January 2023 is extra miserable because added to the predictably dismal weather and usual midwinter gloominess we have post-pandemic ennui, post-Brexit chaos, continuing government lunacy, endless train and postal and NHS strikes, and more. Just don’t mention the war.
But there is a glimmer of light in the darkness – the London International Mime Festival (LIMF) is back, on full throttle, with fifteen productions (including eight international works) presented in eight different London venues.
So a buzz is in the air, but with this buzz comes the bittersweet knowledge that this year, its 47th year, will be the final edition of the Festival in its present form. Once it’s done and dusted, LIMF directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig plan to continue working together to promote and support physical and visual theatre, in ways yet to be announced. But what they won’t be doing is programming a month-long festival every January…
This year’s Festival kicked off on 16 January at The Place with the traditional launch gathering around a chocolate fountain, followed by the opening show by Alexander Vantournhout’s Not Standing, one of a number of Belgian companies in the 2023 programme. Through the Grapevine is Vantournhout’s third collaboration with fellow circus-dance artist Axel Guerin, a pas de deux in which these two exceptional physical performers play with their physical differences. And like most of LIMF shows, this one is playing to a full house.
On a sparse stage with simple lighting and no music, dressed minimally in sports shorts, bare-chested, the two bodies encounter each other. They measure up to the other, and they measure themselves in relation to the space, engaging with floor and walls in numerous novel ways. Just how many man-lengths are there to this dancefloor? Holding someone ‘at arm’s length’ takes on a new meaning as there is comic play on the difference in limb length between these two human specimens. The contact between them moves from cautious touches and twists, to grapples and shoves, to a full-on engagement that veers from contact improvisation to all-in wrestling, via capoeira. There is something Olympian about it all. The movement vocabulary shifts again, to full-on acrobalance poses, body supporting body in convoluted and often unexpected ways. A head balance prompts spontaneous audience applause. At around about the halfway mark, the sound of intense drumming kicks in, morphing into an ambient electronic soundscape. The sound of the recorded music is quite a shock after so long without it. Through the Grapevine is a virtuosic display of acrobatic skills. There is no doubting the talent on display here, and there’s novelty and humour a-plenty – but it’s my head rather than my heart that is impressed.
I’m back at The Place later in the week to see Gandini Juggling. And this time my heart is completely won over, right from the start. The Games We Play is a lecture-demonstration created especially for LIMF by company founder-directors Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala. These two have been playing games together for 30 years – they have a repertoire of around thirty productions staged more than six thousand times all over the world, indoors and out. Some of their work – such as the wonderful Smashed and its sequel, Smashed 2 – is created for a large ensemble of jugglers. Some, like 4×4: Ephemeral Architectures, pairs jugglers and dancers. But the core of the company has always been the personal and professional relationship of Sean and Kati, who bonded when working together in Ra Ra Zoo, and together formed Gandini Juggling in 1991. The Games We Play is a complete joy – and as with many earlier shows, brings Sean Gandini’s fascination with maths and magic together with Kati Ylä-Hokkala’s knowledge of and interest in rhythm and choreographic patterns. And of course both are top-notch jugglers.
We start in regular lecture-demonstration mode as we are given a breathless run-through of the juggling basics: the numbers and patterns and terminology. The three-ball basic up to four and five, in colourful cascades and fountains galore; then, they take us down from three to two to one to zero. Analogies are drawn to modern art as the patterns evolve: this one here is a Hockney, that one there a Rothko, and this final big explosion a Jackson Pollock. Sean lectures and Kati demonstrates. When we get to zero, Sean quips that this might be what most people would assume the mime festival to be: a lone Finnish woman onstage juggling invisible balls.
Then, Sean demonstrates, and Kati disrupts – dragging chairs across the stage, tipping the neatly arranged lines of red and green and pink and orange balls off the trestle table so that they run amok across the floor. Sean shares fascinating historical moments. We learn of Lola the juggling pig and her golden thimbles, and all about the legendary Oklahoma Tunnel Shuffle. There’s a harrowing story of Russian Roulette, set in a prison, when a man with renowned billiard ball juggling skills is told that if he drops a ball, his wife gets shot. And, says Sean, eventually everyone drops a ball, no matter how good they are… There are also word-free sections of pure blissful physical interaction between the two: a gorgeous classic Gandini dance and juggling section, featuring German tangos and French waltzes; and a lovely percussive game of taps and ball-grabs on a tabletop. There’s even a vaudevillian duet, because every Gandini show needs one; a gratuitous lighting change (ditto); and a moment of partial nudity, to discourage the children coming to the show – a tongue-in-cheek reminder that circus can and should also be adult entertainment. The Games We Play is a true delight to witness. May the Gandinis continue to thrive for many more decades.
Over at Jacksons Lane: another veteran company returning to the Festival are the David Glass Ensemble, here in collaboration with Topi Dalmata from Italy, bringing together an international cast of performers for the UK premiere of The Brides which cites as its influences Pina Bausch, Mamma Mia, the Marx Brothers, Garcia Lorca and Frida Kahlo. It is directed by David Glass and co-created with Margherita Fusi and Silvia Bruni.
In the opening scene, a sinister mother figure shrouded in black (the Death Bride) activates seven ‘cocoons’ – plastic body bags cum costume bags lying on the ground. Each gives up its contents and here we are – seven young women together with seven bridal dresses, tugged on gleefully or reluctantly or with curiosity. Already we see before us seven strong personalities – no blank slates, no homogenous bodies. Each presents herself to us in all her individual glory, now dressed in her bridal finery, this then disrupted in the most marvellous way. The Brides is billed as a riotous celebration of female misbehaviour, and it delivers. Our ensemble of grrrrls gurn and tweak and stomp and howl and bite and twist and shout to a fabulous soundtrack that ricochets from ‘Love Hurts’ to ‘Real Nitty Gritty’; taking in Elvis Presley’s ‘Crying’, Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Boots’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ along the way. There’s a truly wonderful piss-take – sorry, homage to – Bausch’s choreography to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, all demonic shaking and hair tossing.
But there are gentle moments and dark moments, too, as we move through a cycle of birth, death and resurrection. The relationship between the Death Bride and the Brides sometimes evoke The House of Bernarda Alba. The Velvets’ ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ is a recurring motif, delivered by the women standing on chairs or sitting on the floor, gently singing the song whilst wearing blood-red blindfolds across their eyes. This is good, old fashioned (in the best sense of that term) physical theatre: strong but simple staging; inventive lighting; and basic props such as lengths of material, chairs and twigs used to great effect. And of course, it is the strength of the ensemble of eight great performers that wins the day. Bravo, Brides!
Also at Jacksons Lane: Materia, performed by Andrea Salustri (Italy/Germany) – which I didn’t catch in London, but saw previously at the Edinburgh Fringe 2022.
To quote my Edinburgh review: Materia is as much a demonstration of practical physics and engineering skills as an art show – although all is done with the utmost artfulness. A calm and serious looking young man kneels onstage, leaning over an electric fan which has been placed on its side. He feeds polystyrene balls into the wind current created by the fan and they move around in a circle, jostle each other, and eventually (for some, anyway) get edged out and on to the floor. He steps away, and over to a sheet of polystyrene, which is stacked between two fans which counterbalance each other and keep it upright. This is just the start. Later, there are all sorts of complicated games involving carved or shredded polystyrene, multiple electric fans, and a monochrome lighting plan that plays with the extremities of light and dark, as shadows are cast and strobes highlight the mechanised action. What starts as a straight forward ‘human manipulates object’ scenario evolves into a situation where the objects seem to be calling the shots. Creativity and destruction are balanced out – and there’s plenty of gentle humour too, as we (inevitably) anthropomorphise these polystyrene constructions and create narratives of our own. Here, a mechanical creature asserting its right to survive; there, a tide ebbing and flowing. The final stage picture gives us a grouping of around six automata all firing on full cylinders, accompanied by a great ‘industrial’ soundtrack. It is a truly novel example of brilliant object theatre.
At Shoreditch Town Hall, leading UK visual theatre company Theatre Re returned with The Nature of Forgetting, a LIMF co-commission that was developed with neuroscience professor Kate Jeffery and the Alzheimer’s Society, and performed around the world since its premiere at the Festival in 2017. At the same venue, Thick & Tight (also from the UK) returned to LIMF for the fifth year in succession with Tits and Teeth: A Retrospective of a Dazzling Career, a collection of best bits from their back catalogue. Some all- time favourites return to the stage including the hilarious bouffon encounter between Miss Havisham and Queen Victoria, described thus by Lisa Wolfe in her review at Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre: ‘… a modernist ballet, Queen Have and Miss Haven’t, pitches Queen Victoria against Miss Havisham in a mourning battle… Hair wrenching and breast beating their way through complex choreography that is full of gesture and expression, they compete for the misery prize. Whose loss is greatest, the young widow or the jilted bride? Lit with a rich colour palette that makes great use of shadows, it’s a thrilling ride.’
Told by an Idiot are another returning company, back at Wilton’s Music Hall with Charlie and Stan (previously called The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel). Director Paul Hunterimagines a relationship between Chaplin and Laurel that almost certainly didn’t exist; a ‘comically unreliable’ tribute to these two greats of physical comedy. It could be said that in the retelling of known facts, the re-imagining of the relationship, and the speculation on events that might (in a parallel universe) have occurred, Hunter is inventing the truth. Fabulous physical theatre, and good to see it return toWilton’s, which is such a gorgeous setting, and perfect for this piece.
From the depths of the Canadian wilderness The Old Trout Puppet Workshop bring Famous Puppet Death Scenes to The Pit, Barbican. Matt Rudkin described it thus in his review: ‘The central concept, as introduced by an older host (puppet) character, is that by showing us [death] we will be better prepared to face our own mortality. There follow very many scenes featuring the deaths of puppets… The set is impressive: an Art Deco styled construction featuring a central, curtained puppet booth and two smaller booths at each side. Each scene is so varied in style and staging that it is impossible to get bored, and as the show proceeds we get some breathtakingly beautiful and haunting scenes. The soundtrack is artfully chosen to enhance the different moods, and the visual trickery is at times quite extraordinary, and will make you want to rush backstage and see how’s it’s done. It’s all so inventive and exquisitely realised – kind of like the Muppets meets Monty Python meets Tadeusz Kantor.’
Still Life, rising star of Belgium’s contemporary theatre scene made their UK debut with Flesh, a ‘playful, disruptive drama about our need for affection and recognition’ that played to great acclaim at the Avignon Festival 2022 (read Total Theatre’s previewhere). The show comprises four vignettes. Each of the four pieces, in one way or another, deal with death or transformation of the human body. The first piece investigates the dying body; the second is about modifying the body through plastic surgery; the third investigates the dissociation between body and mind, as played out through a VR experience; and the fourth piece explores re-connecting where there has been disconnection. Each of the four pieces takes one key scenario and works through it with a meticulous care for detail. The central idea is the driver. For example, in the final piece, the question is: what if we place four warring siblings in a room with their mother’s ashes?
Still Life’s work is often described as ‘visceral’. In Flesh, we are not encountering surreal, ambivalent landscapes – the company create tangible environments, peopled by very real and present physical bodies, and then add a twist to the tale. It is the juxtaposing of seeming opposites – the terrible and the funny, the real and the imitation, the present and the absent – that is at the heart of the company’s work, and what makes it such a great success.
More to come…
LIMF shows still to come at the time of writing (27 January 2023): at The Place, Belgium’s Mossoux-Bonté presents the UK premiere of The Great He-Goat. Inspired by the famous Pinturas Negras of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, Mossoux-Bonté has created a powerful, award-winning work for eleven dancers and their life-size puppet doubles, bringing a museum at night to life.
At the Barbican Pit, Dorothy James & Andy Manjuck (USA) present the UK premiere of Bill’s 44th, a puppet tragi-comedy for grown-ups.
In the Barbican Theatre Belgium’s Olivier Award-winning dance-theatre innovators Peeping Tom present the UK premiere of their new and most ambitious production. Triptych: The missing door, The lost room and The hidden floor – three enigmatic and seductive stories that come together in a trilogy of shifting time, memory and premonition, played out in cinematic scope and atmosphere.
The acclaimed masters of mask-performance Familie Flöz (Germany) return to the Festival for the first time since 2016 with Feste, a clever social commentary about the search for understanding and happiness, presented at the Peacock Theatre.
At Little Angel Theatre, String Theatre’s A Water Journey explores themes of displacement, exile, and the importance of solidarity and friendship in caring for our Earth and her living creatures. Performed with newly created, long-string wood-carved marionettes and silhouette animation.
In the film programme: an online screening of Jos Houben & Marcello Magni’s Marcel, dedicated to the memory of Marcello Magni. Online until Sunday 5 February 2023.
London International Mime Festival (LIMF), the UK’s annual festival of contemporary visual theatre, opened on Monday 16 January and runs until Sunday 5 February 2023.
A statement from London International Mime Festival: LIMF is evolving. Founded in 1977, its 47th year will see the final edition of the festival in its present form. Directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig plan to continue together to promote physical and visual theatre, maintain their consultancy and advisory roles and encourage development of physical and visual theatre artists and innovative work. Further information in due course: mimelondon.com
London International Mime Festival is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation.
‘Death is always present – it reminds us that we are alive.’
This is the mantra of Belgian theatre company Still Life, who present their Avignon Festival hit show Flesh at the London International Mime Festival 2023
Blackout. Ambient electronic music plays. As the lights slowly go up on the stage, we see what might be a lounge bar. Tables and chairs, velvet seating running along the back.wall. Cheery Italian pop music is playing, but the people in the room don’t seem very happy. Two are sitting on chairs set round a central table; a pregnant woman eating crisps, and a leather-jacketed man turned away from her, shoulders hunched. Another man in a dark-coloured suit is pacing up and down nervously, smoking. Mounted on a stand is a large photo of a woman, with a spray of white flowers below. We realise that this is a funeral gathering, a wake. The pregnant woman goes over to a cassette machine and changes the music to something more sombre – perhaps an adagio by Albinoni, that sort of thing. Another woman enters the room, carrying a box. What’s in it?
There are clearly complex, longterm dynamics playing out in this group of people – niggles, grudges, jealousies, rivalries. The piece builds very slowly. A terse, psychological acting out of family relationships descends little by little into an out-and-out farce featuring physical fighting, flying ashes, and alternating manic laughter, hysterical crying and primal screaming. All of this is played out as a wordless drama, with a Mike Leigh meets early Complicite kind of vibe.
The piece is one of four vignettes that together make up the show Flesh, which is coming to the Barbican for the London International Mime Festival 2023, after playing to great acclaim at the Avignon Festival 2022. The show is what the Lecoq trained company Hoipolloi always talked of as situation-driven theatre: each of the four pieces takes one key scenario and works through it with a meticulous care for detail. The central idea is the driver. What if we place four warring siblings in a room with their mother’s ashes? What rituals do we need to go through in these pandemic-determined days to be allowed in to see a dying relative in an ICU? Each of the four pieces, in one way or another, deal with death or transformation of the human body.
Flesh is created and presented by the Belgian company Still Life, founded and co-directed by Sophie Linsmaux and Aurelio Mergola.
‘We do everything together,’ say Aurelio and Sophie when I meet with them online. ‘One mind with two bodies.’
Both of them had conventional text-based theatre backgrounds, but having finished their conservatoire training, met as young practitioners attending a three-week-long workshop at the Avignon Festival, 20 years ago. Deciding they wanted to work together, they formed Still Life as a company with ‘the body at the core’. They have created a repertoire of works that are predominantly wordless, but most definitely theatre rather than dance or mime.
The first show they made together was about death – which turns out to be a recurring theme in their work.
‘We were just young adults, but aware that death seemed to have disappeared from our society,’ says Aurelio. ‘We wanted to make something about death that was funny and playful.’ What emerged was Où les hommes mourraient encore, set in a fictional land where death has disappeared, exploring what happens when a trio of friends encounter its return.
Sophie takes up the story, mentioning the company’s second show, Keep Going – a show which set the trend for titling their work in English.
‘We wanted to make people look differently at the world – to create a theatre without words that was meaningful,’ she says.
An interesting reflection, as one of the barbs traditionally thrown at physical/visual theatre is that it is hotter on form than on content.
Throughout the years, the company have maintained an ongoing relationship with Avignon Festival. In 2015 they, along with a number of other young Belgian theatre-makers, were commissioned to create a short-form outdoor piece – Frozen was the result. This was later developed into a longer version. Still Life returned to the festival numerous times, and were commissioned to create a new full-length piece called No One for the 2020 festival. It premiered in February 2020 at the Théâtre les Tanneurs in Brussels (where the company are based, and supported as artists in residence), and went to a few other Belgian venues, but then had to be abandoned when the Avignon Festival 2020 got pulled because of the pandemic.
‘It was terrible,’ says Aurelio. ‘We were crying!’ And it turned out that in 2021, the moment had passed for No One, so it never made it to Avignon. But they got over it, moved on, and decided to create a new work made up of short-form pieces, which resulted in Flesh. And this was indeed presented at Avignon Festival 2022, bringing the connection full-circle from that first workshop 20 years ago to a fully-fledged, full-length production.
Over the past two decades, the core company has expanded to include administrative director Marion Couturier, and technical director Nicolas Olivier.
Other regular contributors to the work – constants for all Still life shows made in the past ten years, says Sophie – are Thomas van Zuylen, co-writer and dramaturg; choreographer/movement director Sophie Leso; and set designer Aurélie Deloche. They are joined on this production by lighting designer Guillaume Toussaint-Fromentin, adding another crucial element to the scenography. Aurelio and Sophie both say that working with the same core team over many years really enhances their work.
I’m very interested to learn how important the writing process is for the company. We often think of word-free theatre as something that develops from a devising session in an empty space – but that’s not the case for Still Life.
‘Everything starts with a dialogue between the two of us,’ says Aurelio. ‘Then we write.’ Aurelio and Sophie will have an idea or a question, which might perhaps be inspired by a novel, or by an image from an art exhibition. Both are fans of the work of sculptor Ron Mueck (he of the ‘Dead Dad’ sculpture notoriety).
‘We like the way Ron Mueck’s work seems realistic, but is actually fake – we try to pull those two things together in what we create onstage,’ says Aurelio.
Talking about taking their cue from the world of visual arts, Sophie says: ‘Vision is vital! We want people to really look at what they are being given; to really see…’
Once an idea has been talked through, and initial writings done, then they bring in dramaturg and co-writer Thomas Van Eyen. Thomas comes from a film background, and uses scripting techniques developed from cinema. In what Aurelio calls a ‘ping pong’ process between the three of them, they develop a very detailed script in which staging, visual imagery, physical action, music, sound effects, and lighting are all detailed.
‘We write in everything before we step into the rehearsal room,’ says Aurelio.
We then move on to talking about the process of creating Flesh. I ask Aurelio and Sophie whether the four separate tableaux (or short-form pieces, as they prefer to call them) were always intended to be shown together; and how they were developed.
‘We started off writing many more than four, just trying out different ideas around the theme of the body – its presence and absence,’ says Aurelio. ‘It was during the pandemic, so the fact that people could not touch each other was informing the work.’
They then sent on the first-draft pieces to Thomas who interrogated the writings, and together the three of them picked out the four pieces they wanted to develop; the ones that best foregrounded the theme of the body’s presence or absence; endurance or transformation. They later worked out the best order for the pieces – the one that would take the audience on the strongest journey. The first piece investigates the dying body; the second is about modifying the body through plastic surgery; the third investigates the dissociation between body and mind, as played out through a VR experience; and the fourth piece explores re-connecting where there has been disconnection. The work is performed by a four-person team of actors – including Sophie and Aurelio themselves.
One of the crucial elements of Flesh, as for much visual theatre, is the sound design. This is by Eric Ronsse, who is working for the company for the first time. The show features an interesting mix of pre-existing tracks, composed electronic music, and ambient sound.
Talking of sound, Sophie emphasises the role that silence plays in the work, and we talk about the fact that theatre-makers need to be brave about such things, and to trust that audiences can handle silence, stillness and space.
Something that comes up a lot when people review Still Life’s work is the word ‘visceral’. It is very hands-on, physical work. In Flesh, we are not encountering surreal, ambivalent landscapes – the company create tangible environments, peopled by very real and present physical bodies, and then add a twist to the tale.
‘We always start our stories with something the audience knows,’ says Aurelio. ‘For example, in the first piece, the audience all have a collective memory of what a hospital room looks like, so they recognise the scene, and its associated emotions, immediately.’
So the audience are not made to do loads of work trying to identify where the scene is set. It is the situation in which the human occupants of this scenario find themselves in that is the key factor – and how they then respond to it.
‘Some things are both terrible and funny,’ adds Sophie, ‘and this interests us.’
It is this juxtaposing of seeming opposites – the terrible and the funny, the real and the imitation, the present and the absent – that is at the heart of the company’s work.
Featured image (top): Still Life: Flesh (part 2). Photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage.
Flesh by Still Life premiered at Théâtre les Tanneurs in Brussels in February 2022, and was performed at the 76th edition of Avignon Festival in July 2022.
It comes to the Barbican 25–28 January 2023 as part of the London International Mime Festival.Book tickets here.
London International Mime Festival (LIMF) is an established, annual festival of contemporary visual theatre. Essentially wordless and multi-disciplinary, its programme embraces circus-theatre, puppetry/animation, object theatre, mime, live art and physical theatre.
LIMF takes place in venues across London from Monday 16 January till Sunday 5 February 2023. For full details of all theatre shows, film screening and workshops in this year’s programme, and to book, see https://mimelondon.com/
Out There Festival leads the way with a fabulously rich programme of street theatre, circus and cabaret, presented in the streets, parks, beaches, and housing estates of Great Yarmouth
It’s Saturday night, the weekend before the autumn equinox, and there’s a bit of a chill in the air here in St George’s Park, Great Yarmouth. It’s 9pm, and we are awaiting the start of Silence!, the big processional show by French street arts company Les Commandos Percu, which is one of the highlights of this year’s Out There International Festival of Outdoor Arts & Circus programme.
And yes, here they come. A bunch of wild-looking men, some sort of mutant cross between steampunks and cyborgs, banging drums, shouting. With them, a team of pyrotechnicians, waving flares, throwing out firecrackers. So, off we go, past the park, along the street, and down to the seafront, the crowd gathering in size as we go. We head onto the main drag, neon lights flashing out the arcade names: Circus Circus, Gold Rush, Silver Slipper, Golden Nugget. The people streaming by are turned into shadow theatre silhouettes by those ultra-bright lights. The crowd is filling the wide avenue now – I fall behind and can no longer see Les Commandos, but I can hear them. By the time we get to the beach, people are lined up six-deep along the promenade. Ah, but there’s nothing to stop us getting on to the beach! I move along to the right, almost to the Big Wheel, and make my way onto the sand, where there’s a lot more space and a good view of the group, who have now climbed up onto their set, a fabulous rocky mountain that moves through a rainbow of colours, an ice-blue glacier one minute and a red-hot volcano the next, the indigo night sky and the shimmering sea behind them adding to the visual picture. Sound and vision work in tandem: as the musicians hammer out their thunderous beats, the ‘rock’ erupts in enormous bursts of fire and light. The music is loud – very loud – a hellfire hybrid of all sorts of rhythms, one minute sounding like a sci-fi samba troupe, the next closer to post-punk experimenters Test Department. As it all comes to a monumental climax, and the artists take their bow, the crowd erupts, clapping and cheering – delighted to have the big Saturday night spectacle back on the menu for Out There Festival.
What very few here in this crowd know is that it was a close call as to whether it would happen – with the festival taking place within the official mourning period for Queen Elizabeth, there was a week of behind-the scenes negotiating to ensure that the programme, including the Saturday night parade, would go ahead. The festival directors stood their ground, and after much negotiation, it all happened – unlike very many other outdoor arts events across the country that got pulled. It is, to my mind, strange that anyone should feel it is somehow ‘disrespectful’ to make art during a mourning period, but we live in strange times. However, in order to appease the powers-that-be, the Festival made a number of concessions to the programme. Les Commandos Percu’s Silence! incorporates a minute’s silence, and is followed by the national anthem. And the festival’s Sunday programme finishes a couple of hours earlier than planned (with an earlier start so nothing is cut) in order to adhere to guidance on national mourning on the eve of the Queen’s funeral.
The Friday evening Party in the Park ends up being transferred indoors to The Drill House – but that’s more about the inclement weather than the Queen. So we get to stay inside, in the warm, as the wind howls and the rain falls – entertained by a line-up that includes the cheery and highly talented double act Jones & Barnard, whose years of experience as physical comedians and cabaret performers is in strong evidence in their hilarious take on magic and escapology; and the fabulous Department of Gruff, who, resplendent in some very lovely latex whole-head dog masks treat us to their versions of classics such as Puppy Love, How Much is that Doggie in the Window?, and (my favourite) The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog.
Saturday morning – and although it isn’t that warm, at least it’s dry. So, wrapped up and clad in sturdy boots, off I head into the streets and parks of Yarmouth. Like other iterations of Out There Festival that I’ve witnessed, the 2022 programme proves to be a good mix of artforms, embracing traditional street theatre, experimental performance and installation, music, dance, and circus. Oh, and this year we also had parkour – more on that anon.
I start off with Miss O’Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama, in which Sarah Munro of the late lamented Insect Circus, in her first solo venture, presents an alternative to the regular fairground coconut shy. Miss O’Genie’s ‘damnable dolls’ turn out to be a set of famous misogynists, or archetypal misogynist figures, who we are invited to batter with fake fruit. So, you can have a go at knocking Boris Johnson or the Pope off his pedestal. Or perhaps you’d prefer to down Putin from his horse, pummel Mr Punch, or get your revenge on a gynaecologist.
As a proud former punk, I take great delight in smashing down a hippy with a nice chunky avocado. Of course, the children of Great Yarmouth join in keenly (groups of teenagers too, who are delighted that it’s free to play and that winners get sweeties), and parents are easily coerced to have a go. The show is new, but has its roots in an installation done by Sarah Munro for Vanessa Toulmin’s The Wonder Show, a contemporary reworking of classic circus sideshow acts. It works very well in this new context, and is a great addition to the outdoor arts circuit. Fun for all the family – and proof that political performance doesn’t have to be po-faced to make a point.
The Dazzling Dollirama is one of a number of installation pieces presented at this year’s Out There Festival – and interestingly enough, challenging misogyny seems to be a key theme. Scottish artist Eilidh Reilly’s Alright Doll takes the form of a number of signs hung from trees (‘Educate Your Sons’ says one, which I am drawn to as a mother of three sons!) and a soundtrack of verbatim texts recorded from interviews with women, debunking the notion of the ‘unlucky’ woman victim of violence, and challenging mainstream portrayals of street harassment. At various points in the day, Eilidh Reilly invites passing women to sit down with a cup of tea and contribute soundbites to the work. Alright Doll was supported by Surge (Scotland) as part of the Four Nations programme for emerging artists, which offered funding to six artists to create work that has toured to Wales, Northern Ireland, England and Scotland. It’s good to see multi-media installation included in the programme – it might not have as immediate an appeal as the classic street theatre or circus show, but I think audiences appreciate the variety offered at Out There.
And talking of variety, an odd-bod addition to the programme is Japanese musician ICHI with his One Man Band, in which he sets up on the corner of a busy shopping road and plays a fabulous array of unusual and homemade instruments, from wonky keyboards to mellotrons and a Kalilaphone (a kind of whistling calliope, I think this might be) via bells and balloons. It is all totally bats and absolutely brilliant.
On to the more regular festival shows now. Flying the flag for classic street theatre come Spitz & Co, previously seen at Out There Festival 2019 with the fabulous Les Gloriables, which referenced and deconstructed Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The company’s latest work, Blue Hawaii, is also a two-hander. The subject this time is Elvis Presley – or rather, it merges the stories of Elvis and an Elvis impersonator who is remaking the film Blue Hawaii, played here by (yes!) a well-known Elvis impersonator, Joe Reeve. And I’ll say here that my walk home at 10pm the previous evening taught me that Elvis is alive and well and living in Yarmouth – almost every pub I passed was either playing Elvis tunes or had an Elvis impersonator performing live. So naturally, this show goes down very well with the local crowd. Joe Reeve as Elvis/the Elvis impersonator sings brilliantly and works very well with Spitz mainstay Suzie Donkin, whose alter-ego Josephine Cunningham plays everyone else – tour manager, girlfriend, fan or whatever (game-playing within game-playing here). As with Les Gloriables, there’s a great deal of fourth-wall breaking and stepping in and out of the action, emphasising the fact that a show is being created live in front of our very eyes, in a public space. Costumes (Hawaiian shirts, glittery jumpsuits) are tugged on and off, in full view or behind deliberately inadequate screens that hide nothing. Audience members are drawn in to the action – blow-up dolphins are crowd-surfed, people are serenaded, and there’s a very lovely scene featuring a pre-schoolers’ air-guitar contest that morphs into choosing a band to back Elvis. We always feel that we are in safe hands, and Suzie AKA Josephine in particular has an enviable ability to respond in the moment to whatever is happening in the space, with true street theatre sassiness and know-how.
Also a two-hander, and also demonstrating an admirable ability to hold a space, communicate with an audience, and think on their feet come Adrenalism – a young company who are already performing with a great deal of street theatre noose. Hey Idiots, Text Me Your Climate Change Solutions features a pair of middle-management PR guys called Warren and Stew, who (despite working for a fossil fuel multinational), are tasked with drawing us into a collective bout of blue-sky thinking to solve the climate change crisis. Yep, just like that! Easy peasy! We can do it, we have scientists! We first meet our two stooges on the street, hoisting up their ‘Text Me’ placard, clambering up onto dustbins to proclaim their intents, tripping over street furniture, and herding people into the performance area. Once they’ve rounded up an audience, we’re into an increasingly ridiculous mock-conference, with a classic clown ‘master and servant’ set-up as bossy Warren belittles the poor (Lamb) Stew and cajoles him into a ludicrous blow-up world costume, whilst also scrolling through the texts coming in on his outdated Nokia that can’t read the emojis. In a world awash with ‘climate change’ shows, it is great to see one that so cleverly satirises the notion of quick-fix and painless solutions – particularly if they are being touted by the very people who’ve caused the problem in the first place. A wonderfully refreshing piece of street theatre – if we’re in the end days for human life on this planet, at least, with Adrenalism, we’ll go down laughing.
Another Out There show tackling the climate crisis, Foolish Doom, is the brainchild of Peter Sweet and Leonie Baker, working under the name Tiny Colossus. They play the wizard Burnhart (a kind of Gandalf/Merlin/Dumbledore hybrid) and his loyal creature Pippa (a green-skinned imp) who have been magically transported here to save our world. After a strong start, riffing on the power of magic and magicians, we move into a rather too polemical explanation of where we are at with the climate crisis and potential solutions, but then the script takes a turn for the better again with the realisation that there are, in fact, no magic solutions. It is a little too slow, and labours its points too heavily at times, but this is off-set by great costumes and a fabulous set (a wonderfully wonky wagon pulled through the streets to the performance site, where they are nicely framed by trees and bushes); some lovely live musical moments using keyboards and a great range of unusual percussion instruments; and some truly fabulous puppetry, as a copper coffee pot and dish become numerous characters met along the way by Burnhart and Pippa. It could certainly benefit from a bit of cutting and tweaking and mulching down, but on balance, the positive aspects of the piece – the strong visual imagery and physical presence, the musicality, the rapport with the audience – outweigh the down points.
Created under the auspices of the Without Walls consortium, and developed with the support of Out There Arts, Joli Yvann’s Timeless also tackles the big question of our day – the survival of our civilisation when the human race seems hell-bent on self-destruction. This time, in a piece using dance and acrobatics played out on a big structure – a giant egg-timer in which the four performers run like hamsters within, or clamber or dangle on the outside, exploring notions of ‘time, irreversibility and climate change’. Inevitably, the structure does eventually become an hourglass, a conduit for the sands of time trickling through. There is no going back! It is a word-free physical piece for the most part, although it incorporates spoken word in the form of recorded speeches by David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg integrated into the soundscape. The superb physical skills of the company are evident as they perform gasp-worthy moves on and round the revolving structure. But to be completely honest, I prefer the soft and fluid floorwork and acrobalance (the core of the company’s work) to those scenes on the big spinning contraption, which is a bit of a one-trick pony. Once we’ve seen people whizzing around inside it and hanging on the outside of it screaming whilst the winds howl (soundtrack winds, although the piece had to be transferred from the seafront to a town-centre plaza because of the real wind!), the novelty wears off a bit. I also find myself thinking whilst I watch that there is an irony to a show about environmental issues being so strongly tied to this cumbersome piece of kit that is subject to technical breakdowns, and no doubt takes a lot of energy to move around the country. But there is no denying the abilities of the four performers, the strength of the choreography, and the noble intentions of their vision for this piece.
Elsewhere in the festival there is circus a-plenty. Belgium’s Tripotes La Compagnie bring us Encore Une Fois, a three-person show ‘seesawing between reckless danger and perilous fragility’. The ‘reckless danger’ element is some truly stupendous teeterboard work. The ‘perilous fragility’ plays out in jokey hand-to-hand and acro sequences which embrace a healthy dose of physical clowning as the three performers push, pull and tease each other. The show is performed on a high stage, rather than at ground level with the audience up close, which means that the very slow build-up (with no soundtrack) gets a bit lost. I see the show twice and it is only on second viewing that I appreciate that very slow beginning, which involves much small-talk, and small-scale interaction with the audience, most of which I lost first time round, thinking something had gone wrong with the soundtrack!
The 2021 Out There Festival programme put the emphasis on British outdoor arts (for obvious reasons), and that worked very well. But it is great to see so many overseas companies back on the bill for 2022. Planned for both 2020 and 2021, and thwarted two years in a row, Argentina’s ManoAmano are finally back here at the Festival with the UK premiere of Kinematos, a piece about a desire to fly that is full of charm and humour, all hung (literally) around a core of fabulous Chinese pole work and daredevil climbing and balancing. There is a delightful rapport between the two performers (who are a couple in real life – but that doesn’t always automatically transfer to stage complicity!), with plenty of clowning moments adding zest to the pole work and acrobatic routines. Sassy costumes add to the spectacle, and there’s a fantastic soundtrack – morphing from a Spanish version of King of the Road to a perky Charleston (danced to very skilfully, I was pleased to see), and then on to a Piazzolla tango that provides the impetus for a gorgeous pole double-act. A complete and satisfying show that takes the audience by storm – bravo!
Italian clown and circus performer Margherita Mischitelli’s Amore Pony is a journey into the feminine which mixes balancing, Cyr wheel, clowning, and audience interaction – with, as seen on this occasion, varying degrees of success. It is all a little rocky, although to give her the benefit of the doubt, she has many elements conspiring against her. For a start, her pitch on the seafront is not ideal as the sea wind clearly interferes with her routines: a high-heel clad bottle-walk that should be one of the highlights of the show has to be aborted as she loses balance and falls off in the wind. Of course when the Festival programmed this and other work onto the seafront, they weren’t to know the weather would turn far more autumnal than it has been in previous years in mid-September. But this isn’t actually the main problem – audiences are very forgiving, and we could see she was struggling with the bottle-walk so gave her a big round of applause regardless. The key issue is her hesitancy in engaging fully with the audience due to language difficulties. Unlike ManoAmano, who use an engaging mix of English, Spanish and gobbledygook, Mischitelli insists on sticking to a faltering English, rather than riffing and improvising in her native Italian or a mix of languages, and thus comes across as lacking in confidence – for example, as she tries to get a team of men into colour-coded tabards in order to join her in a processional dance routine, which becomes a painfully slow process marred by odd pauses. I would have dearly loved to see her perform in Italian, as she is (I’m sure) a talented circus artist with some good ideas; this obscured by the problems of communication, site and weather.
Still with the hybrid circus, and also thwarted somewhat by the weather: Daisy Black’s Feral is an odd one – a mix of live and filmed aerial circus/dance and recorded spoken word text, exploring the notion of rewilding and working with the cycle of nature as we move through the year, from spring to summer to autumn to winter. The live performance section is at the beginning, and pretty short. I was assuming there would be a return to live action at the end, but no. The film is really beautiful, with words that play poetically with rhythm and repetition, and moving images that use a gorgeous palette of earth colours and tones to express mood in a painterly fashion; the solo performer seen engaging with the natural environment, hanging from trees (on silks or a Lyra hoop), walking barefoot through leaves, handling stones. But it is long, and difficult to watch at night in a cold park. Perhaps if the weather had been warmer, more of the audience would have stayed to the end, but as it was, many left.
Also a circus show dealing with the natural world, albeit in a completely different way, is the homegrown Farm Yard Circus – presented by a company with the same name, an eight-strong ensemble (six acrobats, two musicians) who create a joyous melange of tumbling, juggling, and balancing. It’s a delight to watch the little girls in the audience gazing adoringly at the big girls in the show who, dressed in dungaree-shorts with hair pulled into rough bunches, stand shoulder-to-shoulder (literally) with the boys in the troupe, morphing from base to flyer, carrying and throwing with gusto. And the boys are pretty good, too! What is new and fresh and a great advert for the future of UK circus is the size of the ensemble, the range of skills, and the way this lot work together, with the six physical performers fighting fit and full of beans, the two musicians ably employing a range of instruments from banjo to drums and bells, the acrobats augmenting the music with turns on the accordion or percussion. A couple of moments feel a little derivative – some apple juggling sat on a row of chairs that is perhaps a nod to Gandini’s Smashed; some wheelbarrow-wielding and tractor tyre balancing that is a reminder of Cirque Alfonse’s Animal. But that’s a jaded old reviewer talking – when you’ve seen a lot, you’ll inevitably see echoes of other work in young companies. To the excited audiences of Great Yarmouth this is irrelevant – they certainly know a great street show when they see it and respond accordingly, showing their appreciation loudly and with great gusto.
Back to the overseas companies: Belgian company Be Flat have a new take on circus, the duo of acrobats combining their skills in tumbling and balancing with a breathtaking demonstration of parkour in an aptly-named show called Follow Me, reworked for each new environment that the company present the work – in this case, in and around the Malakoff estate in Yarmouth, where the company were embedded for the week before the Festival, working with local residents on creating a route through the estate.
We start in an outdoor urban courtyard, a rather bleak asphalted space, fenced in by garages and brick walls bearing signs that say No Ball Games. In the centre of the courtyard are a pile of lightweight collapsible chairs – the type that people carry with them on hikes or to outdoor concerts. And yes, after some warm-up play on and round the chair-mountain, we are all issued with one, and whistled at with smiles of encouragement. So off we go – following our two performers, who take it in turns to lead the group whilst entertaining us by scrabbling up and over walls and railings, through gardens, and up and down trees. As we turn past the remains of the old city walls, the ante is upped as the two performers scale heights, walk along spiked railings with a sheer drop below, and create acrobalance poses in the most unlikely of places – at the top of an archway, say, or halfway up a wall like a pair of spidermen.
But what of those chairs? We are instructed to wear them like little metal skirts, then form a processional line to dance along the street holding on to the person in front, each of two lines led off by one of the performers. Or we are wordlessly herded along a road and set up as two lines sitting in traverse, so that the two acrobats can take turns cartwheeling and flipping along between us; this turning into a lovely strip-the-willow type dance as we pair up and move along the soul train, waving our chairs in the air, to the applause of the rest of the group.
At another point in the show, we sit facing a block of flats and watch astonished as our fearless duo climb up walls and walk along window ledges, stopping to say a quick hello to a man and his dog who are out on their balcony; fetching a small ladder so they can get right up to roof level. That ladder takes on another role in a later scene, when it surprisingly becomes a flute, accompanying a Stomp-like percussive scene as poles, railings and walls get played. In the final scene, there’s a surprise third performer discovered, playing drums above a flat-roofed garage with a graffiti’d door.
Such a wonderful show! The phenomenal physical skills, the use of site, the humour, the tender care of the audience. It is especially good to see the groups of teenagers from Yarmouth really owning the show – and if they happened to come from the estate where it is staged, and have thus witnessed the creation process over the past week, proudly explaining key moments to their mates (‘Oh yeah, when they did this the other day there was a lady behind those curtains looking really surprised!’). In a weekend full of strong outdoor arts work, Follow Me is for me the very best of the fest. It’s the final show that I see in the streets on Sunday afternoon.
Follow Me sees the end of the outdoor programme, which finishes at 4pm to honour the needs of those who wish to mourn on the eve of the Queen’s funeral, or to attend a local vigil – but the fun isn’t done as we move indoors to The Drill House for the finale. The Festival goes out with a bang as we are treated to an indoor version of Chris Lynam’s anarchic clown show, The Beast of Theatre – in which he bares his bottom to a family audience, sets fire to the stage, and dresses a man from the audience in a tutu before smashing up his watch with a hammer. Good to see that age hasn’t mellowed him – the day Chris Lynam plays it safe is the day we know that it’s all over.
As a gentle come-down, we have a lovely set from the African Choir of Norfolk, who give us a pan-African selection of tunes, taking us from Morocco in the north of the continent to South Africa, and plenty inbetween. The night ends with Festival Lounge DJ sets from El Diablo Rojo and Bmore McVowty, with poetry projections from Colossal Youth. Backstage, artists gather for a final meal together, and much Portuguese wine is drunk…
So, that’s it – another year done. It has clearly been a challenging one for the Festival’s directors and producers – just when you think everything’s getting back to normal, post pandemic, there’s the unsettling weather and a dying monarch to contend with. As artistic director Joe Mackintosh says at the opening of this year’s proceedings: ‘We’re now in a world that has change as its constant.’
Yet within the continuing turmoil, Out There Festival is proving to be, in Joe’s words again, ‘a small point of solidity’. We don’t know what next year will bring, but I’m betting that whatever it is, Joe Mackintosh, his co-director Veronica Stephens, and their fabulous production team will rise above it all and bring us another fantastic experience on the streets of Yarmouth.
Featured image (top of page}: Be Flat: Follow Me sited on the Malakoff Estate Great Yarmouth for Out There Festival 2022. Photo Katherne Mager.
Out There Festival of Outdoor Arts & Circus took place 16–18 September 2022.
Out There Festival, which recently presented its 14th edition, has established an international reputation for its exceptional, innovative and diverse programme. Regularly attracting more than 60,000 people to Great Yarmouth each year. Out There has built a national and international reputation for world-class artistic quality, new and diverse work, regional artistic talent, international collaboration and innovative community engagement. See outtherefestival.co.uk
Out There Arts, the producers of the Out There Festival, and Great Yarmouth Borough Council are presenting Fire on the Water – Beach Edition 22–29 October 2022, sponsored by Visit Great Yarmouth, CPP – Freshly Greated and Interreg Experience. This year’s edition will take place on the golden sands of Great Yarmouth for a dynamic and dramatic outdoor experience featuring dance and acrobatic performances, light installations and night-time fire shows. For further details on this and other year-round activities see see outtherearts.org.uk
A large-scale processional performance through the town centre from French maestros Les Commandos Percu, parkour from Belgium’s Be Flat, female clown Margherita Mischitelli from Italy, and plenty of new circus and street arts from across the UK and beyond. Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts in Great Yarmouth is back with a bang!
‘I’m most excited to have a full festival again,’ says artistic director Joe Mackintosh.
Last year, the annual Out There International Festival of Circus and Street Arts did go ahead, and was a very successful event (read all about it here in Total Theatre Magazine’s round-up). But there were restrictions: only a very limited number of overseas companies were programmed, and the traditional Saturday night processional performance through the town didn’t happen.
‘It’s the thing people are most excited about,’ says executive director Veronica Stephens. ‘Everyone in Great Yarmouth loves the parade, which ends with a big spectacle. In the past, we’ve had Générik Vapeur and Transe Express – and this year we’ve got French percussion and pyrotechnics company Les Commandos Percu.’
The show in question is called Silence, perhaps ironically, and features a cacophony of drums with musical pyrotechnicians storming the streets: post-apocalyptic and rife with animalistic sound and raging fire… although it’s all about the moments of silence in between, say the company. The procession will move from St George’s Park, along the seafront, and end on the beach.
The festival have been in discussion with Great Yarmouth Borough Council about ways to prceed with this event in the light of the demise of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. They will now include a dedicated announcement and a two-minute silence within Silence as a tribute to the Queen, with the National Anthem sung at the end of the show in honour of the new king, Charles III – what Joe and Veronica describe as ‘the biggest tribute moment of the festival, a poignant and appropriate shared point of reflection’. Les Commandus themselves have been passionate about adapting and dedicating this special performance. It is the ideal vehicle for tribute, as it is being created with local people working with the company during this coming week and in the words of the company themselves: ‘This will be the most poignant Silence that we have ever performed – we will be honoured to make this tribute with the community of Great Yarmouth and also as a token of the deep respect held for the Queen by the people of France.’
Silence is one of a number of shows using Great Yarmouth seafront this year. ‘It’s nice to be spreading out,’ says Joe, ‘making much more of the seafront and the beach. Last year was the first time we really used the beach – we had Gorilla Circus as the finale. This year, we’re extending it, putting more on there…’
Other shows scheduled for the seafront area in this year’s festival include Timeless by Joli Vyann, a dance-theatre piece set in and around an interesting revolving ‘egg timer’ structure, which is doing the Outdoor Arts rounds this year as part of the Without Walls consortium.
This show was created at The Drill House, Joe says. Which is an opportunity to mention that Drill House is an arts centre and more: a creation centre that is Out There Arts’ year-round hub; supporting UK and overseas artists, providing making and rehearsing space for emerging and established artists alike. Another Out There Arts supported artist is locally-based Matthew Harrison.
‘We’re very pleased to be presenting the 100th outing of Actual Reality Arcade, which we supported from the start, and which has toured successfully across the country for a number of years,’ says Joe. ‘Matthew is a visual artist and a filmmaker, and we encouraged him to think big, to move his work up in scale,’ adds Veronica.
The show is a lovely, tongue-in-cheek, real-time re-creation of some classic video games, which are given a fairground-inspired makeover: a ‘life-sized interactive game-zone for all ages, inspired by classic arcade games where you play for real’. Harrison has subsequently been commissioned by gaming companies to create additional models for other games. Last year, he also created a new work, Community Chest, which was presented at Out There Festival 2021. ‘His is a great local success story,’ says Veronica.
So other than those two, what else might we find on or near the beach in the 2022 festival?
‘There’s Vanhulle Dance Theatre,’ says Joe. ‘I’m interested to see how they are! The company is led by a Flemish performer new to the UK. She was previously in Icarus, and this is her first appearance at Out There Festival with the new company.’ The show is called Dovetail, a UK premiere.
The other big drive for 2022 is the extension of Out There’s community engagement programme. Always a vital part of the organisation’s work – they are firmly committed to working with communities in meaningful ways – the 2021 programme saw the festival reaching out beyond the town of Yarmouth into the satellite towns and housing estates, where residents are traditionally less likely to be engaging in the arts. Last year there was an evening of events in Cobham, and additionally the involvement of young Cobham residents in Puppets With Guts’ Big Lips show as community dancers. This year will see a return to Cobham, but also a reach out into communities from the Magdalen Estate in Gorleston and Middlegate, Malakoff and Blackfriars Estates. This time round, a great number of Out There artists will be involved.
‘Les Commandos will be embedded in the community, recruiting and workshopping with drummers from the estates,’ says Veronica. All of this work will come together on the Saturday night for the big parade (although of course also having its own stand-alone merit within the communities worked in).
‘Belgian companies Be Flat (parkour) and Tripotes La Compagnie (circus/teeterboard) are going to be doing animations in and around the estates in the week before the festival,’ she adds. ‘And we’ll hold tea parties in the estates in the run up to the festival.’
Also involved in the outreach programme will be Toussaint to Move who will be presenting Beatmotion Mass, running dance workshops within the community, and integrating professional and community performers in work presented. Out There Arts will be working with Creative People and Places partners Freshly Greated on this extensive outreach programme.
‘Freshly Greated have the resources to really be on the ground,’ says Veronica. ‘We can bring in the artists, and they are there, making the connections. Creative people, creative communities – that’s the whole purpose. And we incorporate participants’ feedback into the work, which is good for the festival…’
Joe also flags up another area the festival is working in and on, in the town centre:
‘We’re putting interventions and small shows on Regent Road – we have done stuff there in the past, but we’re making more of it this year.’
For those who don’t know Yarmouth, Regent Road is an oddly old-fashioned pedestrianised street that specialises in gift shops, unintentionally retro cafes and sweet shops, and (oddly) Elvis memorabilia.
‘It has a flow of people, but unlike the people in the park, they won’t be self-identified festival go-ers!’ says Joe.
So, Jon Hicks will be there in his prophesier persona, The Visionary, he of ‘fantastical wisdom and mystical powers from beyond knowledge’. He will possibly be convincing some people that he is, as Joe puts is, ‘a genuinely strange preacher who has just rocked up in Yarmouth’. Predictions, illusions, proclamations and panic will abound.
There will also be a number of musical acts along Regent Road, including the legendary Dutch glass-player Roger Kappers with The Glass Grinder, and Japanese one-man-band Ichi.
Oh, and talking of Elvis, the new Spitz and Co show Blue Hawaii features an extremely good Elvis impersonator, I’m told…
There’s also an interesting new venture from Working Boys Club called Serving Sounds, which is ‘a multi-sensory sound installation that serves bass rather than beer’ and will be appearing at pubs around Yarmouth over the festival weekend. It’s led by Jason Dupree from Living Room Circus – but is a very different kettle of fish, allowing Jason to step aside (for a while) from experimental circus-theatre to reflect on and explore his own working-class roots.
Meanwhile, over at St George’s Park, and on the streets in and around it, we are likely to find an eclectic mix of top-quality circus and street arts companies and artists.
This year’s programme includes slackrope performer Pete Sweet’s new show Foolish Doom, presented under the company name Tiny Colossus, which Joe describes as ‘ a big departure – a two-hander, a costumed puppetry-mask show about climate change that has been developed at The Drill House. I’ve seen bits of it, but not the full show…’
Joe also flags up Margherita Mitischelli: ‘A very good solo woman clown/circus performer. There are far fewer women than men street performers – she is pretty brilliant and not well known in the UK.’ Her show Amore Pony promises a journey of discovery of the feminine spirit, between ‘fairytale suggestions and grotesque implication’ – expect unstable equilibriums and talking mini ponies!
Then, there’s Butoh dance company Cie De Ta Soeur, whose Monta Tanto draws on folklore and popular culture, inviting us to return to ‘a playful nature, wonderful diversity and the essential’. Expect the primordial and other worldly.
‘Good to be going back to having some odd stuff, ‘ says Joe, ‘It’s so strong and so different. Audiences might be puzzled, but they’ll remember it!’
He’s also pleased to be programming Ishariah Johnson, aka Stormskater – one of the UK”s best known inline skaters – an online sensation who posts videos of herself skating in public spaces in London, but who has never (as yet) done a show in a street theatre festival ‘We’re a bit nervous about it,’ says Joe ‘but this is us making the effort to find new talent; to reach across to people outside of the usual outdoor arts circuit and say “have you thought about…”’
Another interesting addition to the programme is Qwerin, a Welsh company who combine traditional and contemporary dance, all with a queer sensibility.
This brings us neatly to reflect on another new initiative for Out There Arts, the Four Nations Partnership which sees the organisation (representing England) working with Surge (Scotland), Spraoi Festival in Waterford (Ireland), and Articulture (Wales) to bring a number of emerging artists/companies from all nations of the British and Irish isles not only to Out There Festival but to other festivals across the UK and Ireland. One of the English components of this group are Beside Ourselves Collective with their new show, The Roving Court – a new, interactive, pop-up street theatre show in which a Judge on a mobile bench tries adults for their childhood crimes, a barrister seeks to defend them ,and children form a Jury to help the Judge hand down comedic punishments.
Another interesting young British company appearing at Out There 2022 are Farm Yard Circus, whose eponymous show promises to ‘bring the cows home with old-time tunes and raucous rhythms, and a juggling suite composed of hay bales, wheelbarrows, a tractor tyre, and even an old scarecrow’.
They are mostly graduates of the National Centre for Circus Arts (formerly Circus Space) or Circomedia. Joe sings their praises thus: ‘There are seven of them, and with a nice mix of skills and disciplines. We were keen to support them as this is the sort of circus show we struggle to find in the UK – with this scale and a decent range of skills. There are very few of them. I can name 20 companies of this sort from Flanders!’
At the other end of the experience spectrum are a number of veteran artists included in the programme. Chris Lynam, the infamous iconoclastic clown ,brings The Beast of Theatre to the festival, promising ‘indescribably wild and wondrous physical comedy’.
Will he have a firework up his bottom, I want to know. Veronica replies that she doesn’t know, but there’s a good possibility that he will ‘get his willy out’. You have been warned.
‘It’s great to have the balance of fresh new talent alongside that core of amazing, really experienced street performers,’ says Veronica.
Talking of which, Akustrik, led by longstanding street theatre favourite Ali Houiellebecq, are bringing D.o.G (Department of Gruff) to Out There – an all-singing all-playing comedy pastiche band in complete dog regalia. We are invited to ‘howl along to well-loved tunes dished up by this pack of versatile mutts as they ramble and shamble along the streets of Great Yarmouth.’ They will also be taking part in the opening night Party in the Park on Friday eve.
Then, there’s Sarah Munro, another ‘veteran’ – former co-director of the late great Insect Circus. She’ll be premiering her new installation, Miss O’ Genie’s Dazzling Dollirama, in which Miss O’Genie and her Damnable Dolls present an alternative approach to a coconut shy, giving us a chance to throw things at famous misogynists.
So there we are – a veritable cornucopia of festival goodies all lined up and ready for the off.
‘There’s serious stuff, funny stuff; brand-new stuff, old-school stuff,’ says Joe in conclusion. ‘Something for everyone!’
Featured image (top of page): Les Commandos Percu: Silence. Photo Veronique Balege
Out There International Festival of Outdoor Arts & Circus takes place Friday 16 – Sunday 18 September 2022 in Great Yarmouth. For the full programme, and further information on the artists taking part, see www.outtherefestival.co.uk
The festival includes a day for professional artists, producers and presenters. Catch Up takes place on Friday daytime and there are also workshops, an Artists Marketplace, pitching sessions, and networking opportunities on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Total Theatre Magazine will be presenting a session on Saturday morning called Total Theatre Talks: Stop Press! An informal workshop for artists, producers and anybody else interested in reflecting on writing about outdoor arts & circus, and on ways of publicising work.