In one week I’ve experienced a crazy range of cultural events. It began last Sunday with an afternoon concert by a choir I sing with – Notorious – famed for performing a repertoire that ranges across every genre in unusual spaces. Today it is relatively conventional – a pub garden a programme themed around food, with its finale being a hymn to Chili con Carne. The garden covered by a polythene canopy and the afternoon temperature in the 30s, this concert must have helped beer sales.
In a week of such eclectic cultural events I will include the viewing of a download of the final episode of The Bridge – a drama which placed a brave strong clever woman at the heart of saving the world – or at least Denmark and Sweden from – well to be honest I lost track of who was murdering whom for what reason – I just loved Saga!
On Tuesday I felt privileged to attend an event at the Dolphin Centre in the Ward End area of Birmingham. The centre offers classes for women in maths and book keeping, crafts and what used to be called basic skills. Over the last 6 months about a dozen women have joined in a weekly session with theatre-maker, Rachael Mainwaring, as part of Birmingham Rep’s Furnace programme. For most of them, theatre does not form a part of their culture, their family habits, their experience. As the centre manager said: no one has ever requested drama worskhops.
The event brought together an assembly of stories, poems, short improvised dramatic scenes, which explored the theme of “what makes a good life”. It was called Feast and involved delicious food chosen by the group – samosas and bhaji, cake– crisps being the request of two of the young Islamic women, whose creative lives include being a writer and a fashion designer respectively. They had worked all through Ramadan on a theme of Food and created an intimate sharing for 25 or so other women to enjoy and gently re-think what it means to be an asylum seeker, or a young moslem woman, or a mother who feeds more than her own family with Biryani on a regular basis for the simple love of making and sharing food. Feast magically combined the sharing of the inner lives of the women and their sense of community and identity.
On Wednesday it was the BE Festival. An annual event in Birmingham, bringing European theatre companies to the city for a week. It has become renowned for assembling the latest “experimental” productions to be performed to an audience that is generally involved in theatre making in some way. This feels like another tribe – young-ish, educated, arty, discerning – indeed the audience is urged to provide feedback to all the artists through writing on feedback forms or attending discussions and workshops. Halfway through each day’s programme the audience and artists eat together at long trestle tables – the mainstage of Birmingham Rep is transformed into a groovy refectory, serving tofu and rice. Diners who have indicated they are vegetarian are given a flower in a flask so the “waiters” can spot them – I think this will have to be reversed – so that meat eaters might be given a mark of Taureau or some such. The participants in this festival audibly sobbed in 2016 when the festival coincided with the results of Brexit.
The first show of the evening is accomplished. It is a theatrical discourse on the dissonance between Greece as tourist destination and the reality of austerity, crated by ODC Ensemble. Rosa Prodromou’s performance is operatic and impressive. She embodies Greek goddess, caryatid, chorus and tour guide. I am not sure I should go ahead with my planned trip to a Greek Island now.
The second show of the evening required more than tofu to stomach. As the audience assembled we were hearing that audience participation was going to be required. I sat at the back. I don’t want to give it away so in short, the audience were enticed to go on stage and do increasingly exposing things until the finale which tested audience everyone’s sense of compliance – to do these acts, to watch these acts, to laugh at these acts.
On to Thursday and it is the 30th birthday of a contemporary dance company that tours the world from Leamington Spa. Motionhouse has grown from a 2-person company that I first saw 30 years ago to an outfit that sometimes has more than one company touring at any one time. On a scorching evening in a car park friends and associates gathered to watch Motionhouse youth companies and their professional corps perform. We watched Block – a show so full of acrobatics, it seems to defy the mechanics of the normal human frame, and leaves us wondering how do you do that with sweaty hands? Once the applause had died, children took to clambering over the giant Jengo blocks and, did they but know it, made their own choreography as the adults drank prosecco, and bought raffle tickets to win tea for two with one of Leamington’s MPs in the House of Commons.
Friday saw me cross to the sporty side. An annual event since 1839, mainly devoted to competitive rowing. In truth the spectacle is one of competitive Hats and Fascinators. The local train to Henley sees these accessories forced into the carriage in the manner of a Tokyo rush hour, with stripy blazers, panama, boaters and peaked rowing caps. To enter the Stewards Enclosure ….
“Ladies are required to wear dresses or skirts with a hemline below the knee. Ladies will not be admitted wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind. “
“Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers with flannels, together with a tie or cravat. No one will be admitted to the Stewards' Enclosure wearing shorts or jeans.”
Arriving in Henley on Thames from Birmingham is like stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia. Men are tall and tanned and called James. Women are thin and can walk in high heels on a tow path. There are pockets of music around the place – Country and Western at the Redgrave Bar, The Imperial Military Band in the Stewards Enclosure and perhaps the most challenging inter-cultural mash ever– a paddle steamer carrying spectators down the river blasting out Bob Marley’s “Every Little Thing’s Gonna Be All Right. Could Bob have ever imagined ….?
And I haven’t even got to the creativity accompanying the World Cup. Chants, memes, outfits….
Block by Motionhouse, Photo: V Roy