December 3, 2023

The Best of BE festival – immersive performance, dance and supper!

All theatre productions should include supper in the interval. Being ushered down a corridor and handed a chicken curry is far more tasty than queuing for an overpriced ice cream. Touring the UK and Europe this autumn, Best of BE Festival 2014 is built around a communal meal that allows the audience to chat with the performers and each other.

That sounds very un-English and a recipe for stilted conversation, but we had been primed for interaction by the previous piece of work by Julia Schwarzbach who involved the whole audience in her performance.

BE Festival is Birmingham’s international theatre festival which shows new performances from across Europe. The best three productions of this year’s festival can be seen across England and Spain in the next month.

First stop on the tour was London’s Barbican. The first piece was From the Waltz to the Mambo performed by Hungarian Milan Ujvari. The schtick was that he had found an old Hungarian dance instruction book. This he read from in heavily accented English whilst dancing, clowning and definitely not capering. Fluidly moving around the old orange book, Ujvari questioned the wisdom of the communist-era book – which received its own applause at the end of performance.

More interesting was loops and breaks by Julia Schwarzbach which followed after stage hands had placed various objects such as palm plants, toy chickens and a green Lycra suit all over the stage. So began the most audience-participational piece I’ve seen. Without it there would be no show – the audience become the performance. Wearing a male suit Schwarzbach instructed everyone to invade the stage and pick up an envelope. Inside was an instruction to be carried out at some point of the evening. These varied hugely – mine was when you hear the name of a popster shout loudly ‘is better than you’. Often audience participation is unpleasant as people are unwillingly hauled onto stage and mocked. Here it was so inclusive that it became almost unnoticeable.

Schwarzbach sat at a desk and someone from the audience came and poured her a drink. Someone else pulled her hair. We were in Abramovic/Ono territory. People started shouting. Someone took a polaroid photograph, someone else started reading with a microphone. One game man had to move the large palm around the stage every time someone else shouted London. Schwarzbach was hugged, her lips painted with lipstick. It became an absurd team-building exercise and with the buzz of excitement palpable, looking at the performance became quite sad. People were enjoying a freedom they rarely have.

After dinner the audience returned to the auditorium with a sense of excitement. This was dashed by the slow final piece, Waiting by Mokhallad Rasem. Better suited to an art gallery and not well-chosen to follow loops and breaks, Waiting is a projection of interviews with people about the idea of waiting, mainly filmed as full-face vox-pops.The twist – rather than being projected directly on a wall, the three performers held up sheets of ragged canvas, moving across the stage and only displaying parts of the projection.  A simple technique to show fractured relationships amongst the interviewees. Most of them were wittering the platitudes many of us would say if someone stuck a camera in our face, but it became clear some were asylum seekers, deeply affected by waiting for papers, families and wars to end. However the audience’s energy and jovial interaction from the second piece was lost and the atmosphere changed. Waiting for the end set in, which allows the creators to say Success, I made them feel what it’s like to wait, but doesn’t make for a great finale.

Details and dates of the Best of Be Festival tour

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