When one sees an advert for an experimental theatre festival, it is always uncertain how “experimental” the pieces presented will be. Will they merely explore new possibilities within the realm of a traditional theatre setting, or will they infact push the boundaries of the very definition of the art form? Works performed at Cambridge Junction’s WATCH OUT festival were thankfully the latter, living up to the programme’s by-line “a festival of dangerous new theatre.”
In contemporary performative arts the word “immersive” is banded around like it is going out of fashion. Very few performances live up to this adjective, but Anna Brownsted’s Marginalia is the very definition of the word. Marginalia is an experience for an audience of one, set in a secret location on the site of Cambridge Junction. It’s all very mysterious. As I enter the performance space reminiscent of a shipping container, Brownsted greets me, asking me to take off my jacket, and checking that I’m not scared of the dark amongst other health and safety questions. As I lie down on the single bed from where I’ll experience the performance, I’m slightly apprehensive as to what the next 15 minutes will hold. I’m compelled to close my eyes, take some deep breaths, during which time Brownsted pushes the bed (which it transpires is on wheels) into an enclosed pitch-black space. At first I feel like I’m in a coffin, but as time passes, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere. And this is where the genius of the work lies. As the audience member lies in the darkness, being whispered to by pre-recorded voices, they lose sense of space and time, which offers time for self-reflection, and also breaks down the boundaries of the traditional audience-performer relationship.
Andy Field’s Lookout similarly challenges the traditional formalities of performance by inviting the audience to become an active part of his work. This performance is also situated offsite, in a high rise building offering panoramic views of the city of Cambridge. Whilst looking out over the city, the audience is confronted with a local primary school student’s predictions of how their hometown will change over time, first via audio, and later in person. The encounters with these primary school children are intriguing and enlightening. They revealed how the younger generation are more aware of and concerned by environmental issues than one may imagine, but also gave all involved a sense of hope for the future of the British metropolis.
As well as these site specific performance’s, WATCH OUT boasted a wide variety of theatre based works, from a sonic guitar quartet promising “eargasms” in This machine won’t kill fascists but it might get you laid, to more sombre explorations of illness, private experience and public exposure in Be gentle with me by IRA Brand with Gerard Bell. Sylvia Rimat’s This Moment Now was similarly motivated, as it selected the theme of “time” to explore in detail. Whilst the show was imaginative in the ways in which it sought to explore the topic – such as interviewing children, referring to scientific theory and even pausing mid performance to offer the audience cups of tea– it was unclear why Rimat wanted to explore this theme, and what statement she was trying to make in doing so. Her performance asked many questions, yet excluded the most important question of all – why am I asking these questions?
Tribute Acts by Theatrestate was another stand out show of the festival. A theatrical analysis of father-child relationships, I found myself crying within the first 5 minutes whilst getting emotionally involved with a cleverly selected excerpt from 1998 disaster thriller Armageddon. The show must be commended for empathetically exploring a universal theme, and for moments of wit, including performer “Cheryl” appearing on a scooter in only underwear and a Margaret Thatcher mask, reflecting how her father nicknamed his teenage daughter “Thatcher on wheels”. However, the nature of the show being built around pre – recorded interviews with the two performer’s fathers, often made the performance feel less universal, and more of a personal, anecdotal journey. Furthermore, the shows reliance on technology (a dependency that was notable in many of the acts in WATCH OUT) disappointingly detracted from the experience of “live theatre.”
Overall Cambridge Junction’s WATCH OUT festival successfully showcase a wide range of boundary defying theatre, which is refreshing in a world where “cutting edge” art work rarely lives up to its name. Despite various criticisms I had of the shows, there was an overwhelming sense of experimentation, and a motivation to explore new modes of performance that must be applauded.
WATCH OUT Festival took place at Cambridge Junction on 28 May 2016. For more information, see Cambridge Junction website.