The Best Of BE Festival- Circomedia ****

The Best Of The BE Festival, playing at Circomedia as part of the Tobacco Factory Theatres Beyond season, feels important in disruptive times. In bringing a trio of European works to our shores it allows its audience to connect with ideas and philosophies currently preoccupying theatre-makers across the Channel. It provides an illuminating evening of work, packed full of ideas and shows the connection between us and our European brethren.
Situation With Outstretched Arm by Oliver Zahn is the knottiest and most complex of the three works. A performance essay that tackles the image of the Hitler salute, it looks at the most infamous of physical gesture and places it in its historical context. We hear a voice /read the surtitles, discussing the ‘salutes’ place in Ancient Rome, its place in historical paintings, its moment in an 1899 Broadway production of Ben Hur, before its subjugation to fascism, initially being used by Mussolini before eventually becoming a key image of the Nazi party. The works performer named only as Sara strides the stage pulling and holding the gesture for minutes at a time. It becomes an endurance feat as much as a statement. She shakes as she holds it. Through physical pain? Yet also perhaps in disgust. For even seventy years later it still has a capacity to shock. Like something we should shy away from. In Germany using it in public can still be a criminal offence. This show, scheduled originally at a theatre in Munich not far from Hitler’s residence in 2014, found itself cancelled as the powers that be were worried about the effect it may incite The gesture still matters. It still hurts a nation’s psyche. Yet in this work, Zahn effectively tries to reclaim it. Whether he should or not is another matter? It’s a shame that the glare of the stage lighting makes the surtitles from my vantage sometimes difficult to make out.Yet it is the work that will stay with me longest.
That’s not to say the other two works aren’t full of their own rich merits. Overload by Italian company Sotteraneo is a real crowd pleaser, a work full of Commedia Dell’Arte influence that tackles modern society’s problem with information overload. Ideas spin out of control, word associations take us into other realms. It is knock about and surreal, moving at a hundred miles an hour; from beauty pageants to gospel choirs; one moment asking its audience to chuck vegetables at the performers like they are Medieval travelling players then incorporating an image of a man dressed as a goldfish drowning. It’s a densely packed half hour that whiles away the time but leaves no lasting impression, a deliberate choice that argues cleverly that in giving all the entertainment and information we need at a click of a button that we no longer find it easy to connect with anything for more than a minute or two at a time.
It is one of the reasons why theatre is so essential. A place where an audience come together as a communion and give undivided attention to what is happening on stage Vacuum by Cie. Phillipe Saire, a work where bodies flick in and out of shadow and light, could be observed in a gallery but it’s in its audiences concentrated attention span that it gains its power. A work that celebrates the beauty and strength of the male body, a Michelangelo sculpture seen through the prism of light and shade. In the most breathtaking moments, audience and performer feel as one. A shared vision. Important.
Best Of BE Festival plays at Circomedia until the 6 May and continues to tour.

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