Flare International Festival of New Theatre 2015 came to Manchester this week, gifting the city 6 days of original performances by theatre-makers from across the world. I made it down to Contact Theatre on Tuesday for a Triple Bill, thanks to the Institute of Community Reporters.
With Force and Noise
HANNAH SULLIVAN (UK)
A woman stands upstage in a spotlight the shape of a coffin, boxed in by the dark. She stands. She stands, is silent. She begins to approach us with a deliberate slowness, and when she reaches the microphone, her voice speaks out timidly into the dark.
With Force and Noise is a one-woman monologue about giving voice to anger, written and performed by Hannah Sullivan. Dressed wholly in black, the deliberateness of Sullivan’s movement is in part to keep silent the collection of bells on her back (a bespoke costume designed by Annelies Henney) which the audience at first cannot see or hear. The monologue is performed with little movement, her arms seemingly restrained by her costume, just as the anger she is speaking of has been controlled.
The performance asks us, ‘When was the last time you were angry?’ A significant question, especially considering I can’t remember the last time I was. If I believe anger is not only therapeutic, but also absolutely essential to provoking change, then why can I not remember the last time I was openly and seriously angry? I’m starting to wonder if I ever was, which is both sad and troubling considering there is much to be angry about.
My feelings were expressed in Sullivan’s voice when she says that more often than anger, she is prone to releasing similar feelings in a heavy, drawn out sigh, followed by a willowy whisper of ‘how annoying...’ I empathise. When I get angry, what happens? I complain. Complaints are the order of the day in a job I get up for, I bear, and I leave. 5 days out of a short 7-day week.
The monologue was also about the way this anger sounds when it is eventually given an outing. For Sullivan, anger translated into a shaky song, the bells on her back erupting into a cacophony of noise, which eventually simmered and died as she crept back into the shadows. For me, a pretty good first attempt at articulating anger.
FIGS IN WIGS (UK)
Within the Triple Bill, Figs in Wigs presented us with a welcome interlude, sandwiched between two pieces initially both bound up quite tight.
Figs in Wigs are a five women strong performance company who skilfully mix theatre with catchy dance routines and deadpan comedy. Dressed in near-identical boiler suits with fanny packs, sporting lusciously thick painted-on mono-brows, the group moved with a quirky synchronicity that was mesmerising and satisfying to watch. What I enjoyed most was this sense of a collective. I could almost imagine them at home, painting each other’s toenails and eating toast in synch at the breakfast table.
Dance Peas was half dance piece, half World Record attempt as the group attempted to break the World Record for eating the most peas with a cocktail stick in three minutes (the current record of 211 was set by performance artist Mat Hand in 2001). I was in no way tired of hearing ‘Dancers Peas!’ followed by the same catchy Pop song and seeing the same dance routine over and over, and over and over. Five times. Figs in Wigs were hypnotic. How easy and pleasurable to submit to routine, to pseudo-competition and to Pop.
JOHNNY’S HORSE (NL)
Eight performers stand in a horizontal line and move towards us onstage. They move towards us v e r y slowly, similar to Hannah Sullivan’s opening, but perhaps more painful due to it being the third and final performance (and probably due to being 2 beers later).
They stand, all in black, and begin to slowly undress down to their underclothing (word of the day) for what feels, in real time, like half an hour. They then dress themselves again for what felt like the next half hour. The second time they remove their clothes, it is in a frantic pulling, tearing and collaborative undressing that is probably intended to feel much more liberating. By this point/pint, the play had descended into a group of half-naked bodies head-banging, stomping, jumping and chasing each other around the stage to a song that plays, finishes and starts up again and again.
The piece is based on TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, and has been described by the group as being ‘a raw search for vigour and authenticity. About breaking out of the system and living as hard as you can.’ For minutes at a time, I revelled in the chaos repeatedly exploding on stage—but soon enough, boredom. I imagine it’s not half as fun watching people let loose as it is to let loose yourself. Still, an enjoyable end to an evening of diverse and often surprising performances.
Although it wasn’t quite the end, as upon leaving, I met with director Mareike Wenzel who was sitting by her impromptu installation in the foyer—a performance initially hers, but unfortunately re-written by UK Visas and Immigration.
The Artists Are Not Present: A Performance by UK Visas and Immigration
MAREIKE WENZEL AND THE NEW COLLECTIVE (DE and GE)
‘This is a festival that is not just about showcasing international cutting edge theatre practices, but bringing people together’. Flare has worthy intentions with this festival, and so no discussion would be complete without mentioning a group of artists who came up against severe governmental restrictions when invited to bring their work to Manchester.
Together with six young Georgian artists (Ana Chaduneli, Tamar Chaduneli, Tamara Gobronidze, Ana Jikiani, Gvantsa Jishkarina and Nata Kipiani), Wenzel was officially invited to create a performance for Flare Festival. Everything had been arranged, but instead of a Visa, the passports of the artists were stamped to show that their applications were considered to be disingenuous, and that their intent behind the application was to illegally remain in the UK. The refusal letter criminalised the artists by stating:
‘I am not satisfied that you are a genuine visitor to the UK and will leave the UK at the end of your visit or that you have sufficient funds available to cover your costs whilst in the UK without working or accessing public funds.'
Wenzel told me a familiar story—of how UK citizens, or those with EU passports enjoy a freedom of movement into to other countries—a freedom often taken for granted and easily denied other human beings. This year we even heard the questionably “left-wing” Labour announcing that ‘Britain needs immigration rules that are tough and fair’.
Where the word ‘fair’ comes into play when imposing restriction of movement upon artists from other countries is questionable. The denial of the entry of these 6 artists into the country was stated as being based on their financial status. It not only brings into question the status of non-EU citizens as viewed by the UK government, but also the status of working artists who wish to engage in international collaborations. If every artist outside of the EU is required to first prove they are wealthy enough to cross borders, Britain’s cultural scene will be deprived indeed.
There is an argument that tells us that Britain gets the country it deserves. It is both shameful and enraging that our government talks about freedom, but stops this freedom at the borders of the EU. To file an official appeal would take the artists 6 months to a year, and reapplying for a Visa would mean paying a Visa fee again (of altogether more than 1000€)—despite the initial fee paid being non-refundable: a perverse punishment in response to ‘not having enough money in your bank account’ in the first place.
Ironically, The New Collective’s performance was to be called ‘Welcome’. The UK government has certainly done more enough to ensure they did not extend this welcome to the artists themselves. It was an illuminating end to an evening of questioning anger and expression. ‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.’ We can only hope that the line from TS Eliot’s poem repeated by Johnny’s Horse does not become a sad and self-inflicted prophecy.
Flare international festival of new theatre, ran 13-18 July 2015 in Manchester at Contact, Royal Exchange Theatre, The Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama and Z-Arts.
Figs in Wigs are Rachel Gammon, Suzanna Hurst, Sarah Moore, Rachel Porter and Alice Roots.
Johnny’s Horse are Myrthe Boersma, Nina van Koppen, Floyd Koster, Henke Tuinstra, Rutger Tummers, Yamill Jones, Abel de Vries, Daan Van Bendegem.
 Flare 15 Programme