I’ll Be Your Mirror

Feature in Issue 24-2 | Summer 2012

Dorothy Max Prior goes 100% Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

Another May, another Norfolk and Norwich Festival! Can it really be a year? 2012 saw the first N&N firmly under the wing of (relatively) new artistic director William Galinsky. Of course, with his great track record at the Cork Midsummer Festival, it was a given that Galinsky, like predecessor Jonathan Holloway, would be keen to showcase an eclectic mix of contemporary performance that would include a healthy amount of site-responsive theatre, street arts, circus and hybrid arts – and it was good also to see so many Total Theatre favourites featured in the three-week programme, including Tim Crouch, Paper Cinema, Little Bulb, and Quarantine.

Outdoor arts attractions this year included the Without Walls commission by Requardt & Rosenberg, Motor Show, the follow-up to Electric Hotel (Motor Show was reviewed by Beccy Smith at the Brighton Festival, see www.totaltheatrereview.com); and Close Act’s Invasion, in which huge beasts apparently strolled down the delightfully-named Gentleman’s Walk (a sight I missed, sad to say – any interested readers can note that I will be seeing this show at the Winchester Hat Fair, review to be posted on the website!). The big site-specifc show of the festival was Time Circus’ Air Hotel, in which audience members were invited to spend a night in the treetops in ‘pods’. I also missed this adventure, but it sounds wonderful!

Well, that’s what I didn’t see. So, what did she actually get to? I hear you cry…

I spent two weekends at this year’s Norfolk and Norwich. On my frst trip, 12 and 13 May, I found myself plunged headfrst into The Garden Party, held at the Festival Gardens, Chapelfeld. The gardens (with the lovely Spiegeltent centre-stage) were jam-packed with picnicking families, who’d come along to catch The Strangelings in their spoof acrobalance show, Tandem; or the ever-delightful Insect Museum; or perhaps the dementedly ironic community radio station, Bramble FM – ‘so local you can smell it’ – featuring, on this occasion, a special Jubilee ‘decorate the throne’ competition in which small children stick plastic flowers onto a gold-sprayed toilet, DJ ‘Chris Evans’ entertaining us with a dismal sock puppet, and pink-lycra-clad MC Maureen (who in another life is the irrepressible Flick Ferdinando) and her sidekick Les running expressive dance competitions to Abba’s Dancing Queen. ‘It’s immersive theatre,’ says Maureen at one point, and no doubt she’s right. Bramble’s PA system is given a run for its money by the extremely loud music belting out from the beer tent, and also from a rather odd family show by Erth Visual and Physical Inc called Dinosaur Petting Zoo, in which a strident Australian woman lectures onlookers about the feeding habits of various prehistoric beasts, whilst her colleagues don whole-body-mask creature costumes, or puppeteer a selection of large and small dinosaurs, to illustrate her words. Sitting somewhere between street arts show and theatre-in-education, I found it all just too gung-ho for my taste, and retreated after about ten minutes to a quieter spot, where I encountered a talking post box telling gentle little stories – much more to my taste. Sadly I never did fnd out who made this piece of work (answers on a postcard please!)

My one trip away from the gardens that weekend was to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s production The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This also proved to be a rather boisterous affair, although in the best possible way, and another opportunity for ‘immersion’ (thank you, Maureen), with the show set in the student union bar of Norwich University College of Art.

It tells the tale of a bluestocking enthusiast of border ballads, Ms Prudencia Hart, who, one midwinter night, fnds herself sucked (via a crack in the tarmac in the Asda carpark) into Hell, where she ends up living out countless millennia in the Devil’s Library, where every book that has ever been written resides.

This strange fate befalls her after an odd night out with her colleague Colin, a sparring partner in the academic debates on the true meaning of ‘fokloric’ in contemporary society (X-factor versus Robbie Burns). A snowstorm detains them in a desolate town in which the ‘folk music night’ at the local pub is less the joyous playing of traditional pipes and banjoleles that would have delighted Prudencia, and more the forlorn strumming of Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind on an out-of-tune guitar, to the accompaniment of the click of knitting needles, followed by a tremendously tacky karaoke session. ‘Oh, you’re from Edinburgh!’ the boozy old biddies croon when Prudencia refuses to take a turn on the mic.

The five actor-musicians weaving in and around the audience (and often over and under us too) create the story of Prudencia’s midwinter adventures using a feisty mix of a text spoken in rhyming couplets and a wonderfully robust physical embodiment of images and ideas through the techniques of ‘poor theatre’ (with, for example, a mad-dash motorcycle journey enacted with torches, flying scarves, and stuttering kazoos).

My return visit the following weekend (19 and 20 May) showed Norwich in a rather different mood. The Festival Gardens were much quieter, with most of the food retailers and boisterous shows absent. In their place were some rather more intimate works, including Il Pixel Rosso’s disturbing live/flm crazy clown car piece, And the Birds Fell From the Sky; and live art / cabaret supremo Bryony Kimmings’ feel-good (think spas, whale song, and fluffy bathrobes) audio installation The Hall of Gratuitous Pleasure.

Escaping from the Gardens, I caught two evening shows that, in their very different ways, were a real thrill. First up was Mirror, by German company Schweigmann&, at the OPEN venue. You know you’ve made a good choice from the programme when you turn up to fnd the likes of Neil Butler (from UZ in Scotland) and Tom Creed (William Galinsky’s successor at Cork) in the limited-capacity audience.

Mirror is a kind of high-tech peepshow. The audience is split into two groups, and we are taken off to be seated on a long bench in a dark corridor facing a wall. A black horizontal strip in the centre opens up to allow us, with a bit of wriggling and adjusting to the low-level lighting, to see human faces emerge from the darkness. We then see bodies floating towards us, seemingly in freefall, like astronauts in zero gravity. There are two bodies, one male and one female, and then there are suddenly four – but wait, two are mirror reflections of the others. But which is the ‘real’ one and which the reflection? Then, with an enormous shock, we realise that the space is full of water. How did that get there? Was it always there?

Mirror is a clever play on perception and assumption, and along the way a beautiful reflection (sorry!) on the Narcissus myth. Just at the point where I’ve decided that everything is a Pepper’s Ghost illusion and there is in fact no one actually in front of me, one of the performers scrambles dripping out of the water and crawls along the edge of the peephole-strip, coming to stare us out eyeball to eyeball. She is real and she is very definitely wet! I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know – they can keep their secrets, and I’ll keep the memory of the magic.

From there it is a brisk walk through the cobbled streets of the city centre to the Norwich Theatre Royal for 100% Norfolk by Rimini Protokoll – who have previously produced 100% Berlin, 100% Vancouver, and 100% Vienna. And as this magazine goes to press, they will be at the Hackney Empire for 100% London. It’s a breathtaking project. I can just imagine the planning meeting: ‘OK, so let’s get 100 people who are an exact statistical breakdown of one city/region – say, 49% men and 51% women; 3% disabled people; 20% children – then give them a series of tasks, and ask them to come up with questions. Then we put them all on stage together. Just them, and a band – no actors.’ I mean, can you imagine? It is extraordinary. And very Norfolk. There’s a ‘Know’ and ‘Don’t Know’ section, where everyone moves across the stage to take up position under giant signs in response to a question, and one question is ‘Do you know how to skin a rabbit?’. An astonishingly large number of people move to ‘Know’.

Everyone gets the chance to show us something of themselves through an object, or a story to relate. I like the man who wants to cobble the A11 and put drawbridges on the county borders. Then there’s the man whose special object is a dictionary (‘every book ever written is in here, you just have to unscramble them’), and the lovely older lady with beautiful posture who brings her ballet shoes. I love the children, who skip merrily round the stage dropping objects, and attempting to gather up lost pages of beloved comics. And I love the dogs – yes, there are dogs, and they join in with great gusto. I love the fact that nothing is censored: there are awkward moments around the issues of corporal punishment, the death penalty, and Zionism. My favourite question is ‘Who fnds it hard to make a decision?’ As the bodies move across the stage, we also get to see a live video feed of the instant choreography emerging, the camera above giving a bird’s eye view. A beautiful, beautiful show – as an outsider, I felt that I had really ‘met’ Norfolk. 100%.

Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2012 took place 11-26 May, at various venues in Norwich and beyond. www.nnfestival.org.uk

In an extension to the festival programme, there will be two additional presentations later in the year: Circa & I Fagiolini’s How Like An Angel in June/ July; and Robert Wilson’s Walking in August/September. See the festival website for details.