STAGE REVIEW: GIFT Festival – Day One (28.4.17) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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GIFT launched in Gateshead yesterday, bringing exciting and innovative theatre and thought-provoking discussion to a whole host of venues south of the river. It continues though to Sunday 30th April, and here’s a look at some of what’s gone on so far.

Will There Be Stew? by Zoe Murtagh

I began my GIFT Festival weekend with Will There Be Stew?  – A four hour work-in-progress by Zoe Murtagh, which gives a direct and honest window into her attempt to figure out her roots, specifically with a focus on her Irish heritage, and her connection to home.

Fittingly, the performance took place in St. Mary’s Heritage Centre – a converted Norman church above the river, it makes for a beautiful performance space. Inside, a long line of earthy rock-like potatoes were laid on plastic white sheeting on the floor, a timeline interspersed with letters – at the far end, a see through bucket of water and some peelers.

The work involved Zoe kneeling down and peeling the row of 51 potatoes one by one and giving an anecdote or piece of information about either herself, her family or Ireland for each, peeled potato in hand. The historical and mythical were mixed with the trivial, the specific with the everyday; from facts about Eurovision to the theft of the Irish Book of Kells, from defeated kings sacrificed to goddesses to short lists of songs that Kate Bush has covered, B*witched trivia to ancient saints fighting to the death, the facts built a growing tapestry that darted in and out of the past and present.

Some of the snippets felt they could be padded a little, and there were certain chapters that started to lose me slightly, but would bring me back round just as quickly with gems such as ‘the earth and peat of Ireland has the right chemical makeup to preserve a dead body’ and accounts of Tir Na n’Og.

Though certainly not a veteran of durational pieces, I stayed for the full four hours, and felt my attention span settle and grow into the piece. Will There Be Stew was engaging in a quiet and peaceful way. It felt at points like chatting to a family friend while they prepared food for a large gathering, such was the weaved fabric of loose bits of information, gradually knitting together.

Intermittent ‘performances’ every half hour or so help to break up the piece as well. These are triggered by a ‘Sinead O’Connor’ alarm and involve Zoe reading out prepared pieces from her research – a letter to Ireland, a Facebook call out for responses to questions about Irish culture and opinions and responses from her friends and family. Finally, the piece closes with the beginnings of a modern-day myth of her own, which is beautifully written and has definite legs.

Will There Be Stew? is a work-in-progress and feels like it has further to go, but feels very close to being a real communion. There was stew. There was coffee and biscuits and a beautiful setting, and a talented performer gently and carefully laying out her past, real and imagined.

La posibilidad que desaparece frente al paisaje by El Conde de Torrefiel

(Possibilities That Disappear Before a Landscape)

After Will There Be Stew, the next show I saw was in another performance space I hadn’t known about before; a black box theatre space nestled in the back of the Baltic Gallery, where El Conde de Torrefiel produced a show that managed to combine bouncy castle erection jokes and existential dread.

The company, based in Barcelona, describe the show as ‘a theatre piece to be read and observed . . . an open book, where the imperceptible world of atmospheres thoughts and memories are described.’

The show did indeed feel like it was part visual art installation, part physical theatre and part fatalistic Gogol-esque short-story collection.

A series of stories were narrated in Spanish and translated on a subtitle board above the stage. These took place in various cities and locations around Europe: a Ukranian poet returning to a troubled Kiev to visit her family; a group of pensioners on holiday in Tenerife enjoying the resort’s entertainment; elsewhere, an art installation in which the audience are the performers; a keynote conference lecture at which a speaker suggests that if we’re destroying Mother Nature, then, well, perhaps its Nature’s turn to suffer.

These chapters are accompanied by visual and physical theatre from the group. Sometimes they directly narrate the action, posing nude for a naked photo shoot by Spencer Tunick at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin in one scene, suggestively inflating and deflating a bouncy castle in another, as they take the role of a group of men who’ve set up a children’s entertainment troupe (because, like brothels, children’s entertainment is a safe economy; there’ll always be children and there’ll always be something to celebrate.)

At other points the accompanying pieces are more abstract and bizarre – a man pulling a small trolley laden with potted plants, for instance.

At all points, the humour is dark and immediate. It is the clashing of images that does it. One minute they seem to be describing the utter pointless fruitlessness of life and the universe, the next they’re painting their own willies and levitating invisible people with a clever use of coloured tights while seemingly still describing the utter fruitlessness of life and the universe, albeit with a cheeky smile.

El Conde describe the work as ‘a naïve game of representations, nice and fragile.’

Naïve, yes. But very knowingly so.

The piece is both unsettling and grounding, highly artistic and simultaneously jabbing art in the ribs like a sibling in the back seat of a car looking for a reaction, while also looking out of the window and staring at the scenery. It’s a stunning piece of work, carefully collated and designed for maximum impact in several directions at once. Highly recommended.

PUG PARTY

To close the Friday was a PUG Party. PUG is a young performance club night created by the inimitable Rosa Postlethwaite and Hannah Walker which runs quarterly in the North East. High quality performance pieces across genres of theatre, dance, comedy, music and more combine with a Phoenix Nights-esque setting complete with spangly curtains and a brilliant and charming down-played hosting style to create a unique night of entertainment.

Last night’s bill was made up almost exclusively of dancers and was exquisite.

Firstly Ella Mesma’s piece Papillon picked up similar themes to Zoe Murtagh’s piece earlier in the day, though from an entirely different angle, as she explored the notion of home and belonging in response to Theresa May’s assertion that ‘if you think you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’ The dance, in which Ella bound herself in a bed sheet, felt daring, defiant, rebellious, angry and intimate, and was beautifully performed.

Next was Family Affair by Patrick Ziza, a piece created in response to the idea that many families have a specific notion of what their children should grow to be that can be difficult to escape. Sober and sombre to begin with, Patrick burst from a subservient role, donned a pair of killer heels and took to the stage to perform a stunning, sexy and subversive dance piece. Again laced with defiant anger, the message of the work was clear, triumphant and transcendent.

In the interval, I had a chance to play Silent Bingo, hosted by Amy Lord. A frantic and bizarre piece, we were taken into another room and another world, in which a girl with a cat’s head spun the wheel, while her co-host, with mouth gaffer-taped, scribbled the numbers on a flipchart. Good, quick fun, even if I didn’t win.

Finally Kira Street gave us Taking Care of Business, described as her attempt to get as close as possible to the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, Elvis Presley. As a lip-sync dance-tribute, it was brilliantly executed with immense energy. Within that though grew a darker message, as Kira returned with increasing frequency to a row of All-American High-Fat snacks laid out in the middle of the stage: a plate of donuts, cartons of McDonalds fries, two glass bottles of Coca Cola and a jar of Reese’s Spread, which became the focal point as she scoffed with increasing fervour, allowing us to witness the energy and unstoppable power of The King breakdown. I took a while for me to get into – early on she offered a fry to an audience member and then revoked the offer, which took me out of the piece for a while. But by the end, it showed its merit and was heart-wrenching – a whole history of a rocket-train life in five or so minutes.

Introduced as a warm-up piece, there was also a spoken-word poem/song by host Rosa Postlethwaite in the middle of the night. A definite personal highlight, it shifted gradually from silliness to social commentary and seemed in a way to encapsulate what PUG is all about – highly political art with a focus first and foremost on creating a good night out. Long may it continue.

GIFT Festival continues at various venues in Gateshead until Sunday 30th April.

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