Royal & Derngate's Flathampton, Brighton Festival

So here we are, half way through May, and therefore half way through theBrighton Festival, which runs 4 – 26 May (although the Fringe is cheekily marching on till 2 June this year).

So far, I’ve stayed focused on the main festival. In the past 10 days, I’ve schmoozed in the glorious Regency Town House venue with HOUSE festival, at the private view of Mariele Neudecker’s Heterotopias and other Domestic Landscapes; joined Peter Reder at Preston Manor for the site-specific (yes, really and truly site-specific!) The Contents of a House, reviewed here; been to the circus (Circus Eloize’s Cirkopolis at the Dome); visited The Old Market for Tam Teatromusica’s Picablo, an homage to Picasso; gone back to the Dome for the diametrically opposed in all ways Bigmouth and Flathampton; frequented various street corners and alleyways in pursuit of a lost music-hall performer for Magna Mysteria; seen and heard Felix’s Machines flash and tinkle at the University of Brighton gallery; vaguely noted the distressed clothes dressing the Clocktower (one part of Kaarina Kaikkonen’s The Blue Route); shivered in the cold whilst watching outdoor extravaganza The Bone Yard; and laughed my socks off with Victoria Melody’s Major Tom at The Basement.

And although I haven’t, whilst wearing my Total Theatre hat, as yet engaged much with the Fringe, I have done so (switching hats / changing shoes) as my alter-ego Dorothy’s Shoes, hosting two Ragroof Tea Dances at the Famous Spiegel Garden, and leading some instant dance classes in Swing, Charleston and Paso Doble on the streets of Brighton for Fringe City.

So it’s been a busy ten days, and it’s interesting to reflect on what works and what doesn’t work so well in this major festival context. I realise I’m in a privileged position as the recipient of press tickets – I quite like seeing things I don’t like or think haven’t worked, because the experience is such interesting food for thought, but I might perhaps feel differently if I had forked out an arm and a leg for tickets. Although sometimes I think that when people have paid a lot for tickets, perhaps treating a friend or partner to a night out, they are really keen to enjoy the experience, regardless of what is presented, and are sometimes a little over-generous. Audiences are generally very kind, I find!

So first some thoughts on festivals and where the audiences come in. Brighton is the biggest arts festival in England, second only to Edinburgh when it comes to UK fests, but Brighton is a very different beast to Edinburgh. There’s a lot of shows and events all over the place, true, but they are for the most part on at normal show times – evenings and weekends. There isn’t an army of eager theatre-goers who move into Brighton for the month, as they do with Edinburgh in August, tearing round the city day and night in search of the next show. Most tickets are sold to locals, and most people are getting on with their lives in between seeing the shows.

This may be why Mercurial Wrestler’s Magna Mysteria didn’t work quite as well as it could have, although it is very well-intentioned and a lovely idea. It’s a kind of magical mystery tour, in which you sign up at a beautifully crafted fairground sideshow fortune-telling booth, receive a sort-of tarot card (mine was The Sisters – there’s also a Policeman, a Siren, and a Magician), and then await instructions. Now, like other people I know, I’d assumed this meant you’d get the instructions there and then, and you’d then spend an hour or two following a trail. I’d put aside a whole afternoon to do this very thing. But no – you get a text that asks you to visit a website, and you then (over the next few days) get instructions to meet characters at various times and places and thus piece together the unfolding story. Now, I have a pretty flexible life as a freelance artist and writer, but I only managed to make two of the appointments, and I also missed the final denouement. God knows what people who have proper jobs, or who have care of small children or elderly relatives, would do. I completely understand why the company want to create something that unfolds over a number of days, and to keep the instructions and assignments secret till the last minute, but I just can’t see who could manage to complete all the tasks and still live their lives.

I had an interesting chat about it to seasoned street theatre / site-responsive performance director Damian Wright (of Periplum). He has enormous sympathy for the company as he has created similar work in the past, and has learnt along the way about the hazards of such projects. How to balance the mystery with the necessity for people to be able to plan in their engagement with an artistic project?  How to find a way to weave in and out of regular life? ‘There must be a way!’ he cries, and together we decide that ideally Magna Mysteria needs to take place on an isolated island with a tiny population so that there is no escape and everyone can be engaged – somewhere like Summerisle in the Wicker Man film, perhaps.

I was with Damian having just seen another of the Without Walls commissions at the Brighton Fest, a show that he’d had a hand in (well, more than a hand – he was the hired-in director of the show). Rag & Bone’s Bone Yard Tales is a kind of environmentally conscious Steampunk romp, featuring some rather nice animated objects tearing around on three-wheeled trolleys. I enjoyed it, but with some reservations – like Magna Mysteria, it felt a little bit work-in-progress so I’m hoping to catch it again at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival on 18 May before saying too much more. I will muse on and report back soon… Keep a look out for the street theatre/outdoor performance round-up.

Another family-friendly show with a strong visual aesthetic is Tam Teatromusica’s Picablo, an almost word-free homage to Picasso. It’s a pleasant enough hour watching the unfolding and morphing 2D and 3D images, as paintings and drawings we are all familiar with (images of harlequins, ballerinas, blue-faced beauties, doves, bulls et al) construct and deconstruct themselves through digital projection that, with the help of two whimsical live characters, interplays with a set of screens, canvases and cubes – the whole thing moving from animation to shadow play to multi-layered moving picture. It’s all very easy on the eyes, and there is a wit and playfulness to the show that reflects Picasso’s own approach to life, but it goes nowhere really as a piece of theatre. Reading the programme notes, I learn that the company’s main interests are in fusing film, music, video and painting. As might therefore be expected, the live performers are the weakest link in this mix – I can only imagine how much better a show this would be with a couple of really top-notch physical performers on stage… too much skipping and posing and not enough dynamic physical action from these two.

So moving on from the so-so to the wow factor shows: my highlights of the first week were Cirque Eloise’s Cirkopolis, a feisty piece that takes its inspiration from Lang’s Metropolis and Gilliam’s Brazil, which I’ll be writing about in a festival circus round-up; the highly entertaining and thought-provoking Major Tom by Victoria Melody, review to come; and the much hyped Bigmouth by Belgian company SKaGeN – a one-man homage to the art of oration that lived up to the hype. See Matt Rudkin’s review of it at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2012.

In the Bigmouth post-show discussion (very ably led by Brighton Festival theatre programmer Orla Flanagan – so ably that she restored my faith in the value of post-show talks. Keep the audience out of it for as long as possible, that’s the secret, folks!) solo performer Valentijn Dhaenens spoke of the pleasures and pains of being part of SKaGeN – a four-person actor-led company with no director, with all the negotiations that entails (hence the need to make a one-man show where he could do what he wanted, without compromise) and of the journey from first idea to project fruition in the creation of Bigmouth. For many years, he accumulated speeches from 2.500 years of human history – Socrates to Osama Bin Laden via Martin Luther King – and had many false starts with the show whilst trying to find the key to the piece. He was, he said, ‘waiting for the speeches to talk to each other’. The breakthrough came with the recasting of the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels’ call to the women of 1930s Germany as a gentle, seductive wooing, which he juxtaposed with the verging-on-the-insane rantings of General George Patton, who demands that cowards be killed before they breed so that America can become the land of the brave. He also has some interesting comments to make on the use of song in the show, which he sees as crucial pauses or moments for reflection in between the torrents of words. The live mixing of sound is a key element of the piece, with echo, reverb, looping, and layering adding to the key dramaturgical notion of the show, which is that words work on us on many different levels, semantic and semiotic. I had trouble reading the surtitles, so just sat back and listened to the sounds – and oh what lovely sounds he made! He has a lovely singing voice, as well as a lovely speaking voice, an easy familiarity with many European languages, and amazing talents as an actor, switching between four different languages and many different accents and timbres. I love his rendering of La la la la la A-mer-ica and how it segues to and from Sinatra’s swinging Fly Me to the Moon and Marilyn Monroe’s breathy Happy Birthday Mr President…

After such a mind-altering and seductive experience, I really ought to have gone home to bed to let it all digest but no, I went from the sublime to the ridiculous, in the form of Flathamptom.

Now, this is a show aimed at primary school children: ‘Ninety joyously playful minutes’ in which ‘children and their families meet the residents of Britain’s flattest town and help them turn Flathampton into a fully three-dimensional world’.  For one night only, a special late-night version of the show was turned over to adult festival-goers. We were gathered up by a ‘bus driver’ and toot-tooted from the Dome bar into the Corn Exchange and round a giant playmat, then co-erced into building Ikea-flat-pack play-houses and furniture, then let loose with our toy money to spend and play at the village shops. Unfortunately I just wasn’t in the mood and found it excruciatingly horrid – like being thrown sober into a late-night Glastonbury Festival ‘immersive’ field or a tacky themed club night.

I think I would much rather have experienced the show with its intended audience, primary school children, rather than with a bunch of late-night revellers lapping up the irony. Piña Colada instead of lemonade didn’t do it for me, I’m afraid – although I did enjoy the sherbet dib-dab and the opportunity to guess the number of sweets in the jar. The performers (the cast including many physical and devised theatre stalwarts like Becky Kitter and Frank Wurzinger) did a sterling job in engaging their adult audience in the playtime activities (making cakes, raiding the dressing-up box, playing doctors and nurses, running toy post offices etc), but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I did stay for the allotted 90 minutes, but unfortunately the show was running over time, so I left to catch my last bus home without seeing how the mayhem and merriment got brought to a conclusion. Time for bed, said Zebedee – and off I went, feeling rather old and tired.

Only another ten days to go. Or three weeks if we count to the end of the Fringe…. I need a little kip before the next round, which kicks off for me at the Theatre Royal with Cassus’ Knee Deep, another classy circus show – wake me up before you go-go.

Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer working in theatre, dance, live art and street arts. Under her alter-ego Dorothy’s Shoes she creates performance work that both honours and usurps the traditions of popular dance and theatre, and plays with the relationship between performer and audience. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She is also co-director of street theatre/dance company The Ragroof Players.

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