Monthly Archives: April 2012
Jim Cartwright’s Road is regarded as a cult classic. First performed at the notorious and politically subversive Royal Court Theatre in 1986; it is an angrier, edgier, homage to the angry young men plays of the 1950’s, such as John Osborn’s Look Back in Anger, complete with the defining class satire and explicit, shocking content. In the 1980’s it did for theatre what John Cooper Clarke did for performance poetry, in that Cartwright made the form appeal as being refreshingly punk – a vital part of fringe culture, as opposed to being reserved for a social elite as was, and perhaps sadly still is, the attitude of many towards theatre.
It is fitting that Road be restaged here in Birmingham during a time of grim austerity under recession and rising unemployment. The stories of working class characters on a derelict estate appear as relevant as ever, and as a huge fan of the source material I was anxiously anticipating a night of unrelenting venal and crass assaults that ought to challenge any audience of unsuspecting patrons.
On entering the Crescent’s auditorium it was a shock to discover that Stage2 is an all-youth troupe! It was a cast of school kids performing a play rife with sexually explicit scenes and filthy language, not to mention an unrelentingly bleak tone. There is no moment of redemption or reconciliation at any point; Road starts depressing and ends with the characters either miserably despondent or (spoiler alert) dead. Could this be a diluted version of the source material, perhaps a cleaner, twee version? Two minutes in, however, and it became apparent that such apprehensions were thankfully, though terrifyingly, unfounded.
The young actors were genuinely stunning. The nuances of emotion and self-awareness required for such complex characters always felt natural and effortless. For example, Sam Hotchin put in a brilliant turn as the boorish Scullery, the linchpin narrator character guiding the audience through the vignettes in each house along the road. Hotchin was an intimidating presence; impulsively aggressive, morose or playful, this Scullery was a welcoming host who could snap at any moment. Though beneath the crass repartee, he inscribed his Scullery with a certain world-weariness that is only implied in Cartwright’s script with the pessimistic line ‘just remember folks, if God did make them little green apples, he also made snot.’
Other highlights included George Hannigan and Anna Gilmore as a young couple on an existential hunger strike. Both of their monologues were particularly affecting, especially given their initial light-hearted exchange. Indeed the playing off of hilarious pathos with the tougher scenes had the effect of making the heavier moments feel even more sincere and earned throughout; something largely in debt to the strength of the young actors’ performances.
A word must also be said for the production. Stage2 really made the most of the Crescent theatre auditorium. There was a two-story scaffold construction in the centre stage that divided into six subsections, each representing a house along the road. Framed by dustbins and litter, the cast were scattered all around the theatre. They were in the isles, on overhead galleries, as well as climbing the walls and us the audience were effectively cornered by witty, feral teenagers playing drunk and shouting at each other. Nevertheless, the chaos of it was never arbitrarily out to shock, but rather to engage and tune the audience into the vernacular of Road.
The chanting scene in the denouement of the last act ended the production with the entire cast and chorus surrounding the audience and screaming ‘Somehow, a somehow might escape!’ It was oppressive and chilling in an unexpectedly Lord of the Flies kind of way.
The exuberance of the performances and the uncompromising production of a challenging play had the culminating weight of both uplifting and exhausting the audience, as they left seeming somewhat shell-shocked. It was a truly immersive evening of theatre; unpretentious, funny, sad, and brilliantly played.
Words by James Grady
As the end of the Easter Holidays dawned upon me I decided one last cultural experience of Birmingham before I became bogged down with exams, revision and a multitude of stress upon the return to University was necessary. So, I left my books behind and set forth for Brindley Place where this month’s Tell Me On a Sunday was taking place. Walking into the Ikon Gallery’s café we were greeted immediately by Katrice Horsley, the national storytelling laureate, who was to be our host for the afternoon. Dressed appropriated for the theme of ‘Feathers and Bones’ she wore a black, corseted and fabulous dress with a dark birdcage veil completing the ensemble. Reminding me of a coquettish black widow, she took to the mic to welcome us and we settled back for an afternoon of stories.
Katrice captured the audience with the tale of her mother, the beautiful woman who taught her the secret of the ‘3D pout’ but allowed herself to relax amongst her animals. In a comical telling of her mother spending the little money they had to purchase chickens, Katrice shared the story of her childhood with her Mother through these little chicks. They were the ‘happiest days of my mom’s life’ we were told. The whole room seemed to collectively hold their breath as Katrice gazed silently and with glassy eyes at something in the past. From the warm humorous tale of her mother and the chickens we were then reminded of the theme ‘Feathers and Bones’ and we learnt of her mother’s death of lung cancer. In an emotional finish, Katrice tells of seeing her mother’s body, ‘a husk’ which she dressed as the feather boa sister. From this tale of her mother we learn how Katrice was given her wings, her feathers, from her Mother but we are left with the poignant note that feathers turns to bones ultimately.
Next to the stage was Guari who lightened our hearts with a story of ‘Bootie’ the squirrel she met when she was researching in an Indian Village. She talked about learning the difference between asking questions for research and the opinions and personalities you learn through actual conversation; she told of how this was denied to her because she was an ‘ignorant city girl’. Everything changed for Guari when an injured squirrel adopted her as her mom. She comically described Bootie ‘peeping out of my ponytail’ and how this squirrel brought her together with the village community. A laugh went round the room as she recalled the moment it was discovered her ‘little daughter’ was in fact a son. In-keeping with ‘Feather and Bones’ we learnt about Bootie’s death, but were left with the heart-warming reminder of the ‘little baby squirrel that ran towards people instead of away from them’.
David took to the stage next and with gruesomely comic details described his medical history and how a condition he developed in his bones led to his hospitalisation, but also the making of some special friends. With vivid descriptions, we shared his hospital experiences from the death of his friend John, as well as the spurting of blood over a nurse which led to his decision to take up painting. We are reminded how despite death and the body going to bones, memories live on and David credits his painting due to this brief friendship with John.
Next up was Cath who enthralled us with a story from her childhood; a tale of boredom on childhood holidays which takes on a supernatural feel as she intones the ‘Cry of Dart’ in a dark voice. The story of an apparently un-kept grave always adorned with permanently present fresh flowers is a spooky one until, in an anticlimactic move which induces laughs from the audience, we learn that ‘The council pays a bloke to do it’. The disappointment in the room that the ‘spirit’ doesn’t exist was evident but so was the enjoyment gained from this refreshing twist at the end.
Polly then entertained us with a ‘nugget’ from her youth, a young love story which ended in vegetarianism. The humour is evident in the tale with memories of this ‘dark, handsome boy’ she fell for and her good humoured cringing at herself when remembering the crush she had on him. She recalled the essay she wrote him on the subject of vegetarianism and we felt for the younger her while she remembered with us the realisation that he, sadly, didn’t share her feelings of affection. The tale ended with the humour of sods law that upon meeting years later they both have boyfriends but only she was a vegetarian.
An American woman finished off the story telling with her tale of a life full of ‘feathers’ and birds that were thrust upon her by her enthusiastic mother. She regaled us with stories of her bird ‘Teely’ and the bird sound affects she added in were brilliant. We delighted in her tales of the birds depression and she finished by telling us how these birds have always been a constantly important feature in her life, despite never wanting to keep any of her own.
Tell Me on a Sunday is a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The intimate café at the Ikon gallery and the high standard of storytelling makes it an experience you will be hard pushed to find elsewhere. The stories may make you laugh, they may make you reflect upon your own life, but what is for sure is that you will really enjoy listening to them.
Words and photography by Libby Hewitt
Last Thursday night I went on a tour of Berlin…in Birmingham. Part of the fantastic Fierce Festival of live art, Berlin Love Tour was a guided tour of the German capital city through the streets of Birmingham, led by Hilary O’Shaughnessy. Hilary, as she explained at the outset, had lived (and loved) in Berlin after leaving her native Ireland. The Berlin Love Tour came from an idea by O’Shaughnessy and Tom Creed, and was first performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010.
Meeting outside the Crescent Theatre (a local gem just off Brindley Place and Broad Street) were around 15 to 20 people ranging in age from early twenties to their sixties all wrapped up warm in the bitter cold. As we gathered we were accompanied by what looked like a busker with a guitar; however, his clean and smart-ish attire gave him away as part of the performance. We were then greeted by Hilary, who warned us against jaywalking (illegal in Berlin) and also that anyone expecting an erotic tour would be disappointed. She introduced us to the key themes of the performance: what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, what’s been destroyed and what remains. It was clear from the outset that the legacy of the Second World War, Nazism, and the Berlin Wall would be all pervading during the next two hours.
First stop was the Palast der Republik, a relic of the East German past which housed galleries, a theatre, restaurants, a bowling alley and a discotheque. The Birmingham backdrop for this was a piece of waste ground off Broad Street, a fitting blank canvas to get our imaginations in gear. Next up was the Mitte – the heart of Berlin, or in our case just outside the Slug next to the canal. Hilary told us how the Mitte was considered ‘poor but sexy’ and is now a victim of its reputation as the cool and hip area of the city: high rents, coffee shops and bars are the defining characteristics now (an appropriate echo of Brindley Place). The Brandenburg Gate was envisaged in place of the Regus building next to the Sealife Centre, and our guide’s moving tales of memorials to those killed in concentration camps was an interesting contrast to the suited city boys and girls hanging out and smoking outside Bank. It was at this point that the guitarist caught up with us and played Blur’s Out of Time. This brought us straight back into our modern physical surroundings and out of our journey into the past.
Our next stops were the River Spree and the Unter den Linden boulevard. At both stops we were told fragments of Hilary’s relationship with Alex, her German boyfriend, and the sinister aspects of their time together hinted at an emotionally abusive and turbulent time. The Bebelplatz was next up, projecting the site of the former royal library where Marx, Engels and Einstein had all studied on to the site of the impressive new Library of Birmingham. The Bebelplatz was also the site of the infamous Nazi book-burning ceremony of 1933. By this point Hilary’s recollections of her time with Alex were getting more intense and distressing and at the next stop at Birmingham’s Hall of Memory in Centenary Square she told of arguments through tears.
We moved on via Hitler’s bunker to the Berlin Wall, along with the climax of Hilary’s own story (all interspersed with distracting musical interludes). Stories of failed escape attempts over, under and through the wall were combined with the account of how Alex left Hilary. What was striking about Hilary and Alex’s story was the depth of her love for him, no matter how much they fought and what he did to her. The influence of the Berlin Wall was also clear; ‘it’s just a wall’ Hilary said at one point, but it is undeniably much more than a physical symbol.
Our final stop was the rooftop of the Brindley Place car park where we could look out over the city. The last account was of Stasi informants; since the wall came down and records have been released, families, friends and co-workers have tried to both forget and remember their betrayal. Hilary also explained how hard a ventricular assist device (known as a ‘Berlin Heart’) is to remove from patients, a true allegory of her time with Alex. The final scene of the performance was the guitarist accompanied by members of the Birmingham Choral Union singing Tender by Blur. His appearance brought us back to Birmingham from Berlin (and sadly in this case, to a deserted car park).
The tour was largely enjoyable and Hilary O’Shaughnessy was a brilliant guide and performer. Her skills in taking us not only to those landmarks of Berlin but also into the depths of her own relationship proved the event a true ‘love tour’. However, the regular appearances of the guitarist, Greg Milner, were at times grating and distracting. The choice of songs, mainly modern brit-pop tracks, were not in-keeping with the historic narrative and were sung in a way that they became a dirge. Considering Hilary’s story, it would be unfitting for the songs to be upbeat, but her skill in storytelling had already evoked the emotions Milner was trying to get across. The music therefore added nothing but did take something away, always bringing us back to our real surroundings. Still, it was a unique and innovative piece, truly in keeping with Fierce Festival as a whole, and I would recommend the experience to all.
Words by Andy Newnham
As part of Fierce Festival, Common Logic is yet another interactive art initiative taking place across the city this week. Created by Anna Horton, the project consists of many small, colourful blocks being placed around notable areas in the centre Birmingham, each mini-sculpture slightly different, but all having corresponding holes and rods which allow the blocks to be attached to one another. This miniature, yet widely spread art installation could perhaps be seen to reflect the nature of scattered ideas or thoughts, that only when brought together make cohesive sense and order.
All eagle-eyed finders of these small wooden gems (and indeed, those who are yet to find one) are invited to attend the Fierce Festival Hub @ VIVID today, Saturday 7th April, at 3pm for a Common Logic collective where the selection of bright blocks will be reunited.
Words and photography by Anna Lumsden
Mette Edvardson’s Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine is part of Fierce Festival taking place all this week in Birmingham. Edvardson was in part inspired by the premise of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which books are burned for being deemed dangerous. The protagonists in this dystopian future consequently resort to memorising entire novels in an attempt to preserve them. Memorising a book is at once an intimidating feat of memory and an inspiring testament to a person’s love of a text. This week, Birmingham Central Library is briefly home to seven local volunteer participants or ‘living books’, people amongst the shelves who have learnt long passages of novels by heart, waiting to be ‘read’. They each tell their stories verbatim, exactly as the text is printed, to an audience of one.
I was warmly greeted at the entrance and after a short while informed, ‘your book is ready for you now’, a peculiar turn of phrase, both implying that the woman I was going to meet was in fact a book, and that the book itself (Oscar Wilde’s Short Stories) was a conscious person, waiting for me. Other living books were available, mostly modernist classics such as I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. Other novels included Bartleby The Scrivener by Herman Melville, (Un)arranged Marriage by Bali Rai, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Crash by J G Ballard and Aesop’s Fables.
The Birmingham photographer Elly Clarke was my book, reciting Oscar Wilde’s short story The Happy Prince. We found a quiet corner of the vast library and sat beside a large window looking out over the town centre. Without any preamble she began with ‘The Happy Prince, a short story by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1888. High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince…’ Her voice was soft and lilting, gently unravelling each lyrical phrase. Wilde’s story is full of rich colourful images so it seemed fitting that a photographer had memorised it. It was an incredibly intimate experience, more so than simply being read to. You are listening in on the edges of someone’s memory, each line meticulously ingrained in them, the result of long hours and a labour of love, not just from the author but the also teller. We held a eye contact for much of the performance, and I became completely absorbed in the narrative, drinking in the sounds and texture of the words, being only acutely aware that each minute equated to hours of work on her part. A man reading nearby closed his book and leaned his head back, eyes closed, listening to her. I later learnt that everyone she had performed to reacted differently. Some laughed throughout, others cried.
Wilde’s story was written for his own children as something of a moral fable, and the prose style is biblical and even archaic for the time. However in revisiting the tale through the living book, wittily subtle touches in the allegory seemed to emerge. Later, Elly told me that being absorbed in the story for so long had forced her to examine each character differently, such as the sharply satirical figures of the sycophantic counsellor characters and even the philanthropic Prince who, when closely observed, seems to be actually rather manipulative and selfish. Such insights and emotional connection to a work of art are perhaps the underlying focus of the project. In a culture of multi-platform media and constant instantly accessible culture swarming around us vying for attention, close reading is lost. Few people have time to be immersed in a book in such a way and there is something rather melancholic about that. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to listen to Elly, a rare and beautiful experience. Indeed as the event’s title suggests, it was an oasis of calm during an afternoon in Birmingham’s city centre. I left the library feeling genuinely uplifted.
Time Has Fallen Asleep in the Afternoon Sunshine concludes today, Saturday 7th of April at 5pm. There are still a few slots available though, so book in now to have the pleasure of listening to your own ‘living book’.
Words by James Grady
The Message is a literature meets theatre installation running until Saturday 7th April as part of Fierce Festival. The performance is taking place in the ‘Edible Eastside’, a new development area on the bank of the Grand Union Canal that, when complete, will be a new cultural hub for art in the city.
Seeing great crowds for the opening of The Message on Sunday, the Edible Eastside is certainly quieter in the week, with visitors trickling in to take part in the event. On arriving, all spectators are invited to write their own personal message of Hope or Fear on a notepad, which is then folded to be passed to Eloise Fornieles, the creator of the installation, who is positioned pacing around a large mound of white chalk. On top of this mound is a large rectangular wooden crate, standing tall against the backdrop of east Birmingham’s urban landscape. On taking the messages, Eloise reads, folds, then posts them into the coffin-like crate, ready for a ceremonial burning on Easter Saturday. When burned, the crate will fall away to reveal a marble sculpture that has been encased by the wood and messages, whilst creating an impression of the messages being dispatched to the world.
Having to sit and spontaneously write a personal pearl of wisdom on either hope or fear is a somewhat unusual act in itself, but to then hand this message to Eloise as she circles the sacrificial crate, so ‘in character’ that she appears almost mechanical, creates an experience nothing less than surreal. Despite this, the notion of an interactive audience is a feature that Fierce Festival appears to be increasingly focused on, promoting new ways into art and abandoning the traditional artist/viewer boundaries. The Message is running until the burning of the crate on Saturday (tomorrow), so if you haven’t had a chance to experience it before now, make sure you come along to witness the final stage of this innovative installation. What’s more, the Edible Eastside is certainly a project to watch for the future of the Birmingham arts scene.
Words and photography by
Fierce Festival continues this week at mac with Cupid, an interactive art installation that casts light on an eternal question: what is hidden in the secretive depths of the heart? Through an intriguing selection of elements of audience participation, London-based company Subject to_change combines theatre and art to create a uniquely inspiring experience.
First, participants are led into what appears to be a narrow, whitewashed room, separated from an adjacent larger room concealed behind a floor to ceiling translucent sheet. Plaster of Paris halves of hearts are arranged on a table in a production line, drying under bright heat lamps as they wait to be joined together to create a whole.
After being admitted to the second room one by one and greeted by artists Abigail Conway and Lara Haworth, each person is invited to take a seat at the large wooden work desk in the centre and begin to decorate their own heart sculpture. Though tentative at first, all of the participants soon began experimenting with the brightly coloured paints, all creating designs that were inspired, thoughtful, simple, vibrant or abstract but, as would be expected, all completely different. In this way, the true nature of the variety and beauty of the heart was revealed.
Yet, without time to perfect their designs, the participants were then led to a third room to begin the next stage of their ‘journey’ and the quest to discover the secrets of love. All given travel rucksacks and clutching their over-sized, somewhat cumbersome hearts, everyone is treated as guests arriving in the darkened space, lit only by ghostly spotlights creating an effect of moonlight. Lying on the floor and staring up towards to dark canopy, the guests are then led through an exploration of the stars through a relaxing yet captivating narrative from the two artists. Stars glimmer into view above, appearing and disappearing in flurries of white and coloured light sequences. This presented the notion of Cupid’s presence in the stars, leading to the completion of individual maps of the guests’ ‘journey’ through the cosmos, answering questions of love, past and present.
Finally, these ‘maps of the heart’ are placed inside the heart sculptures which are in turn hung upon threads, suspending them in mid-air. The next stage of the journey saw the curtains rise on one side to reveal yet another room where cinema style seats were tiered again the furthest wall. After the guests take their seats, the next stage of the expedition is explained. Using real, full size bows and arrows, the guests are called up in twos to aim and shoot at the colourful line of hanging hearts, gently swaying on their strings.
Through much amusement, several of the hearts were successfully pierced with the Cupid’s arrows, leaving their targets swinging in graceful unison in the backdrop of their shadows. Some arrows, however, were less accurate, simply hitting the back curtain or glancing off the edges of their intended hearts. However, to complete this meditative and creative sequence, the guests are reminded that in love, the arrows that miss can hold just as much importance as the ones that hit their targets, providing a thoughtful and uplifting concluding message to the event.
Finally, the arrows finding their way to their intended hearts are mapped into a unique constellation, sealing in the stars the exact fates of each heart. Cupid is taking place throughout next week right up until Sunday with multiple performance times and is a stunning achievement from Subject to_change. With the inspired devised combination of art, astronomy, theatre and archery, this is an experience not to be missed; a truly cathartic, thought-provoking and extraordinary exhibition. Or performance. Or workshop. Or exploratory journey into the cosmos? You’ll have to see for yourself.
Words and photography by Anna Lumsden
Fierce Festival kicked off in style at mac Birmingham last Thursday 29th March, an exciting start to what promises to be a very interesting festival. Fierce is an annual international festival of live art that takes place across the whole of Birmingham. The work presented here often pushes boundaries and leaves its audiences asking questions and wanting more.
For anyone who has not had the pleasure of going to a PILOT night, the concept is this: artists submit applications to show new work for one night, normally about 15 minutes long, and an audience pay a small fee to come and see a real variety of performances. They are encouraged to give feedback to the artists and let them know where they think their pieces should head next. The audience tends to be really supportive and talkative, and PILOT nights are a great place to meet people who are interested in contemporary work across the region.
I am currently working for Fierce Festival as a festival volunteer, and so I was unfortunately unable to see everything that was performed at the PILOT night. However, I did see some really interesting performances and installations.
After the first three performances in the main theatre, Bone Ensemble showed their ‘Blah Blah Blah 2’ in the hexagon theatre, a space that, only seating 84 people, is much smaller and more personal than the main theatre space. We were introduced to Luce Irigaray (played by Jill Dowse) a philosopher and feminist who would be conducting a lecture for us. She took to a lectern with an unrealistic wig and matching French accent, and began to speak about philosophy and her ideas surrounding ‘the other’. I have to admit, a lot of what was said in the first five minutes went completely over my head, but I’m tempted to say that this was the point. Then, having spoken about silence being the way to discovering ‘the other’, she asked for Sophie to come up on stage. At this point, panic struck through me. My name is Sophie. Was she talking to me? Audience participation has never been my forte. But no. She was looking for an imaginary Sophie, and pulled up a girl from the front row. Then she was looking for a boy, Philip, and pulled up a very shy looking young man. Sophie and Philip stood opposite each other, trying to be silent, but instead kept bursting into fits of giggles, which, as an audience member safe in the back row, was very amusing to watch. Eventually Luce stormed out. And then back in, this time with an accordion. We all sang along to a song she had created about Sophie and Philip until the lights went down. Although I (and I think most of the audience) did not necessarily understand the intellectual content of the piece, it was a great example of audience participation really working and it was a genuinely enjoyable experience.
The great thing about this PILOT night was the various pieces that were happening around the space. Jessica Latowicki performed her new piece ‘A Fault Line’ in the café area of mac. I only caught the last couple of minutes of it but the audience seemed to have really enjoyed it. There was also an installation by Kate Spence called ‘Human Puppet’, in which Kate was suspended from the shed inside the mac by strings, and the audience were free to pull them and move her arms and legs. She was blindfolded throughout, and people were invited to take pictures with her whilst pulling her strings.
The final piece performed around the mac was ‘Man vs. Woman’ by Alex Wojtulewicz, which took place outside, and consisted of Alex being dressed as a woman and dragging a washing machine along the floor. He wore a dress and strapped his feet into a pair of heels, which all contrasted with his facial hair and manly build. I spoke to a lot of the audience members about what they thought the point was. The general consensus was that the piece questioned the strength of men and women, and the way in which we view them. Whatever the point of it was, it got people asking questions, which is essentially what PILOT aims to do.
Fierce festival continues until April 8th and details of all events can be found at www.wearefierce.org
All details for upcoming PILOT nights can be found at www.pilotnights.co.uk
Words by Sophie Collier