Pros: A great opportunity to sample the theatrical offerings from a range of different countries with some thought-provoking moments.
Cons: A bit disjointed and quite a high price tag for something that was quite am-dram in places.
I wouldn’t describe the Best of Be Festival as a play. It’s really a collection of three short pieces of performance art bound together with a discussion at the end. It was my first time to see this kind of theatre and also my first time to visit the Barbican in all its Brutalist beauty and it added up to an unusual and largely engaging evening.
The BE stands for Birmingham European. The festival started off as a two-week event in the second city this summer, showcasing 22 different pieces from 11 different countries. The three winners are now halfway through a tour of the UK and Spain, which will end in November.
Each of the pieces were quite physical and designed to be able to transcend language barriers but were all distinctly different from each other. My standout favourite was the final piece Waiting by the award-winning duo Mokhallad Rasem who come from Belgium/Iraq. The director had interviewed a number of people from different countries about their experiences of waiting including immigrants waiting for their papers to come through. The production cleverly blended film, movement, art and sound to create a piece, which was really thought provoking and powerful. Bringing to life the agony of waiting and of living a life in stasis.
From the Waltz to the Mambo by Hungary’s Radioballet was less successful to my mind. Think Louis Spence of Pineapple Studios prancing around for 20 minutes doing back-flips and the splits whilst reading from an old ballroom dance manual. Technically the performer was an excellent dancer and the piece had funny moments but it felt a bit try too dry and am-dram.
Julia Schwarzbach’s Loops and Breaks was a little like a less-extreme version of Marina Abramovich’s performance art. She put the audience in the spotlight as she got us to perform tasks using envelopes filled with instructions. My girlfriend and I were torn about this one, she thought it was more like a game you might play in your GCSE drama class but I could see the merit in it and thought that it was well executed. It did go on for too long though. The fun was in the surprise element and once we had had three iterations of it, it lost a bit of interest.
Staging for all three performances was very simple, just a plain black room and spotlights. Some used the space incredibly well; Waiting had the entire room in darkness with the only light being the projector projecting the films onto a piece of white cloth. Some pieces were less suited to the space; the performer from Radioballet was lost in the space and could have done with total blackness and a follow spot.
We opted to have the meal with the actors so we got the full experience and I’m glad we did because otherwise the interval would have had 50 minutes of hanging around just to come back for the final 20 minutes of theatre. The meal was a real bargain (£7 for dinner and a beer) but it didn’t evoke conversations with the actors and audience as it was supposed to, and people were just stood around awkwardly. I can imagine that this worked really well in Birmingham when everyone was involved in the buzz of the wider festival but I don’t think it translated that well on the tour and it really broke up the flow of the performances.
At £16.50 a ticket (or £24 including dinner) we thought it was a little expensive. It was more like community theatre that had been moved to a grand venue. Some of it was very thought provoking and there were some interesting and experimental elements that you don’t get in mainstream theatre, so it’s worth catching on tour if you fancy a different night out that gives you a flavour of Europe.
Best of Be Festival is now on tour. Find out more information here.
Created and Performed by: Radioballet, Mokhallad Rasem, Julia Schwarzbach.
Producer: Be Festival