We are in the midst of festivals season, from the annual ones like Brighton last month to Edinburgh next, the biannual ones like the current LIFT, or the one-off, ad hoc, and apparently all-embracing, London Festival 2012 that is wrapping up lots of things that are happening already, plus some that it has commissioned from scratch, under a festival banner to provide a cultural strand alongside the Olympics happening later this month.
That’s included lots of other festivals, large and small, within the festival, like the World Shakespeare Festival that’s saturating us in all things Shakespearean; and has itself spawned another festival within that festival, the Globe’s recent Globe to Globe initiative of hosting 37 visiting companies performing each play in a different language.
So the current festival mania is partly a question of marketing and branding. And actually avid theatregoers — whether professional ones in the shape of critics or enthusiasts as in theatregoers who buy their tickets — create our own festivals all the time. Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic of the New York Times, has just spent two and a half weeks in London, and saw some 30 shows in that time. (It’s always lovely to encounter a fellow addict; I sense a kindred spirit in his devotion to voraciously seeing as much as possible. Our paths constantly cross both here and in New York, and there’s always a friendly smile or chat if we’re close enough, like at the Royal Court last Thursday when he was in the row in front of me).
This last weekend I created a mini-festival of shows taking place in tents myself. On Saturday evening, I visited the temporary Arcola Tent — installed around the corner from their existing home as a replacement to it while it is undergoes a summer refurb, much as Chichester is planning for next year when its main house is overhauled. I was seeing the return to London of the incredible Penny Arcade, a New York performance artist who first brought her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1993, and subsequently transferred it to the ICA, and I saw at both places then.
This piece — partly a series of character monologues, partly polemical personal address, partly therapeutic intervention, and partly dance club night (complete with erotic speciality dancers) — is a one-of-a-kind performance spectacle, and I was totally blown away again, as I was all of nearly twenty years ago, by the show’s insights that are so skilfully brought out by its astonishing presentation.
This is the most powerful, passionate, political, provocative, personal and pertinent show in town; Arcade herself is a life-enhancing life force, like a cross between Ruby Wax, Bette Midler, Pamela Anderson and Danny DeVito, all rolled into one.
Then on Sunday afternoon I visited the threesixty theatre tent, installed in a different corner of Kensington Gardens to where it was sited two years ago for its inaugural production of Peter Pan, for this year’s presentation of another family classic, CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. While the domed canvas tent provides a striking in-the-round space, with wrap-around video screen for projections to continue the action above and around the central stage level, I was disappointingly underwhelmed this time by the show itself; If you’ve seen The Lion King or War Horse, you’ve seen most of the tricks recycled here.
Then I headed to the South Bank and the gorgeous Spiegeltent that has been installed behind the less-than-gorgeous purple cow of the Udderbelly tent next door; putting them side-by-side accentuates how dismally functional the Udderbelly is, behind its witty exterior, whereas the Spiegeltent is beautiful inside and out. The Spiegeltent environment is where La Clique was born; it has now led to various spin-offs, including La Soiree and now the latest, Cantina, a small-scale, but big impact, circus show of just seven members from Australia.
This short, but far from sweet, show grips with its gladiatorially violent confrontations. With the performer flinging themselves sweatily at and over each other, this is a bruising, alarming show in every sense, underscored and offset by the caressing jazz, banjo and honky-tonk music that they also perform live. Some of their setpieces, like the handstands performed on broken glass, are morbidly gripping; you don’t want to watch but you can’t take eyes off it, either.