Review: Best of BE Festival

Since it began in 2010, BE Festival (Birmingham European Festival) has flourished, now bringing an abundance of European theatre and performance to the city of Birmingham. This year, the festival is on the road, with Best of BE Festival taking three highlights from this year’s festival on a country-wide tour. For a festival in its infancy, this step is a big one: to take work developed in a festival context to cities that do not have a relationship with such work or the festival itself is risky. Thankfully, this pays off – audiences are treated to three pieces that show the artistic and creative merits of European work. It’s a joy to see these European companies, some of which are still relatively new, offering their performances in intimate fringe spaces. There’s a lot to be said for the artistic vision of spaces such as the Barbican, which regularly show international work on vast stages, but in the small black studio space of Rich Mix in Shoreditch, the excitement of seeing emerging European artists is palpable.

Three companies and three different styles are presented in Best of BE Festival: the small and delicate L’Absent by La Compagnie du Geste qui Sauve, the artistically bizarre Vladimir Tzekov with Fantasy No10; ‘The Beauty of Life’ and the startlingly brilliant debut of A Tres Bandes with Solfatara. In the latter, a predominantly text-based piece, the playful interpretation through surtitles and translation shows us that text can take on a life of its own, regardless of the languages spoken and understood. Each piece lasts roughly half an hour, offering a snapshot of the work being made in cities beyond our borders.

L’Absent offers a poignant look at the absence of a loved one departing, and leaving behind memories and objects associated with them. Two principal performers are accompanied by subtle vocal melodies offered by a third. The male performer embodies the furniture and objects once associated with him. The female performer interacts with them but it is clear that she only sees the inanimate objects, without feeling or seeing her boyfriend/husband/lover manipulating them. It’s a playful, poignant and subtle performance, particularly in moments such as the male performer becoming the woman’s dress, floating and swishing around her. The closeness and desire for contact is electrified, but never realised, for he is ultimately a fading memory that time is washing away. L’Absent doesn’t bring tears, but it certainly warms the heart.

In Vladimir Tzekov’s Fantasy 10; ‘The Beauty of Life’, the tenth piece in a series of performances looking into the relationship between dramatic form and music, this emerging company offers a piece dictated by image and music, with philosophical text overlaid. It’s a difficult piece to consume, presenting images that are rich and bold: a man in a tutu, weeping as he holds ballet shoes, the slow grind and moaning of a woman as she ‘makes love’ to a philosopher, and a man in a wheelchair repeatedly thrown to the floor. “Take me out of here, bitch” he says, over and over, whilst a song builds to a crescendo, “Forever we’ll be together, beyond the grave”. Images of the performance linger long after, but their meaning is often elusive. In a post-show discussion, it became clear that this confusion, the inability to define and describe the piece, is what the company strives for from their audience. In effect, then, it has worked – from the company’s point of view, at least. Above all, a strikingly bold piece.

But it is Solfatara by A Tres Bandes that steals Best of BE Festival. It is unsurprising that the piece won 1st Prize and Audience Prize at BE Festival, given its hilarity, conviction and inventiveness. Using the varying stages of a volcano to describe a couple’s relationship, this piece is astonishingly well developed. Creating a physical presence for ‘the fear’ in which we all feel during a relationship and our lives, the couple trip and fall down what feels like an endless set of stairs that will ultimately lead to the destruction of their relationship. Text collides between them, and a third performer embodying ‘the fear’, coaxing them to say what they really feel, offers a comical angle to the work. The text loops and builds until even the surtitles give up, and bemoan the company’s need to speak so quickly and tediously. Solfatara is a joy, and highlights the need for a festival such as BE Festival to give space to such European talent.

Best of BE Festival offers a night of European creativity that won’t leave its audience disappointed. From the loveable to the quirky and downright hilarious, be sure to catch the triple bill on its journey through the UK.

Best of BE Festival is on tour until 6 November. For more information, tour dates, and venues see the BE Festival website.