The big ‘B’ may have been looming over 2019 but the ‘B’ word didnt stop BE Festival (Birmingham European Festival) from programming their 10th year of experimental European performance at the Birmingham Rep Theatre. I went to check it out.

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In their decade of experience, the festival has garnered a reputation for the weird, the wonderful and the unconventional. Turning the traditional literally back to front, the BE team invite you round the back of the theatre, through the stage door and into the backstage area of the Rep, a warehouse-like cavenous space with warren-like studios, rehearsal rooms and offices shooting off in all directions. A make-shift bar and cafe have been artfully bedecked with what look to be miscelaneous props and costumes mixed with a bizzare lost property collection from days gone by. A band are set up ready to play, if you can hang about ’til after dark…IMG_20190703_103158270

This year’s selection of artists hail from Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Hungary and Belgium as well as the UK, bringing theatre, dance, comedy, circus, music, visual and performing art. Every year, hundereds apply and only a handful of the most daring are picked. Across the week (Tuesday – Saturday) each performance takes place just once in a set of three unique performances per day, so you can’t miss it! But that’s not all there is to occupy you.
Recognising that a pan-European festival is a ripe opportunity for cross-cultural collaboration and networking, there are also workshops taking place during the day. These are created with the participating artists in mind, but also open to any ticket holder who wants to join in! There were some shy voices in the room in the workshop for producers that morning, but once they got going… it was hard to find a place to stop! In particular, I found the conversations we drifted into surrunding surtitles and subtitles fascinating, as European we all had stories of successes, failings and funny moments. Such a wealth of experience in the room, so much to learn!

The workshops BE run offer a unique opportuity to meet and work with artists from all over Europe. Perhaps you’ll meet an artist from a country you have never even have envisioned visiting on holiday, then by the end of the session you have made plans to set a circus-opera with performing, singing dogs on a remote island somewhere. Birmingham is basking in glorious sunshine on this lovely mid-festival Wednesday but I wouldn’t say no to a commsion or two in Italy… preferably near a beach.

Ever lurking, the ‘B’ word felt like the elephant in the room in our discussions around Creative Europe funding, work permits and developing potential partnerships. We can but plan and hope to Keep Calm and Carry on Anyway, wherever the axes may fall.
Speaking of falling axes, it was with some trepadation that the audience filed into the theatre later than evening from the hustle, bustle and general exciteble chatter (not to mention large glasses of wine and even larger slices of cake) of the uniquely cool, uniquely Birmingham backstage space. Belgium axe-throwing circus extraudinaire duo have promissed to show us their skills in ‘One-Shot’ later but it is down to Iraqi-Belgian performance artist Mokhallad Rasem to open the night’s trio of shows.

‘Soul Seekers’ is a performance documentary project, filmed on a six week stay in a Belgian asylum centre where Rasem, the maker, was once a resident. Rasem is present on stage as the film, which explores the lives of the residents and examines their personal response to notions of ‘home’ and ‘the soul’. His devised movement work which sees him struggle to uncover his face from a character-strewn cloth and speak to us, jarrs with the more naturalistic film content in a way that reveals a sickening truth; without this intervention we would not see them or hear their stories. We might only see their status, in statistics we read or see on the news, not their faces. The hand-drawn cartoon faces leer out from the set which is contructed from paper, cruelly it is just ‘paper’ (their identity paers) that these souls need to be faces again.

‘One Shot’, by contrast is a hilarious circus show featuring daring feats of acrobatics laced with slapstick humour – and axe throwing. Utterly exposed in a ring-like round space with just a rope divider laid on the floor, it was almost as entertaining to watch the audience across from you gasp and wince as the axes flew. Without uttering a single word the Cie. One Shot duo had us eating out of the palms of their hands… literally, as pieces of flying apple are all part of the warm-up.

Unfortunately for me, I could not stay for the communal dinner and innevitable discussion that takes place on long tressle tables ahead of the third show of the night, but every fibre of me wanted to (it smelled great!). Show and dinner combinations are nothing new but I have never seen anything in the scale of the places laid out in the studio next door to the main space. Another idea that has enriched the strong sense of community at BE Fest. You get a sense that there are a lot of returning visitors. Artists, indeed, are housed by members of the community who volunteer every year. I hope the integration and warm reception they have recieved by these commuity members and their audience leaves a lasting impression.

Border-busting, ‘B’ Word busting BE Festial is a cultural wonderland, filled with weird and wonderful delights and an overwhelmingly strong sense of community. Whatever borders may go up as the deadline approaches, I cannot see their programmers and production team being phased by such things. Long live BE Fest, and what it stands for at this politically turbulent time.

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