After a year away Mayfest 2018 brought a new batch of creative and critical discourse; dance, theatre, performance art and everything else in between; to Bristol with its latest festival, the 15th incarnation since its launch in 2003. It was a quieter festival for myself personally, only 6 shows seen in a little over 10 days of activity, so inevitably it felt like I missed some of the most buzz worthy shows of this festival. In particular Caroline William’s video installation cum performance piece Now Is The Time To Say Nothing at the Arnolfini drew breathless praise from seemingly everyone who saw it, Verity Standen’s new choral piece Undersong enchanted people in the three distinct venues of Bristol Cathedral, St Georges and the Barton Hill Settlement, while The Killers saw Richard Allen place a binaural sound piece into the heart of a café in Weston Super Mare. All these pieces created some of the biggest conversations of the festival and I was sad to miss them.
If this now bi-annual festival may have been missing some of the independent scenes marquee names that it has hosted in recent years, the likes of Dead Centre, Tim Crouch and Bryony Kimming’s, it did manage to bring Ridiculusmus to Bristol to present all three parts of its mental health trilogy. Complicated Grief, the third and newest part, still feels a little undernourished, its good ideas and intentions being blurred with a performance style that takes slow to its extremes. It may be making a point about the final slow waltz to the reaper, but for every funny moment; an accidental fart being released, the taking of the wrong days pills, speakers being employed to try to shake someone out of their grief; it takes an age to articulate its points. In an age of oversaturation, however much I tried to concentrate, boredom took hold long before the end of this 75-minute work.
Concentration was also at the heart of Contact Gonzo vs Bristol for audience and performer alike. A three-part symphony of balance, slaps, tumbles and trust at St Jacob’s Swimming Baths, its first symphony takes on the You Tube challenge of ‘the floor is lava’, as the seven strong cast made their way from fire escape to the centre of the room, ensuring their bodies and then musical instruments never hit the floor. Its stately beginnings soon made way to physical force. Two bodies hit into each other, neither refuses to budge, they collide again with greater force. Soon a water bottle is used in battle, flung to the heavens and crashing down hard, almost as hard as the slaps that are administered liberally from performer to performer. From chaos to meditative, its final third saw its audience co-opted into our own act of concentration, as chests and foreheads, elbows and knees were used to balance pieces of twigs until the space resembled a small forest. Team building turned into performance, it’s a work that defies easy analysis but a week later its energy and its conflict have stuck with me.
I’ve very rarely felt more genuine conflict in a theatre than in Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas brilliantly gruelling Palmyra. A hammer has been entrusted to an audience member and both performers are pleading with her to give them the hammer. Violence is potentially only a decision away; any decision feels like it can only lead to bleakness. As the minutes tick down the pressure cooker heats up. We, the audience, feel complicit. This is a worthwhile sequel to the equally brilliant EuroHouse, its title referencing the city that has changed sides a number of times over the course of the war, here the audience like the inhabitants of the city find their allegiances turn over and over again from tall, handsome, softly spoken Bertrand to Nasi’s smaller, bearded, more beaten down frame. Crockery is smashed, blows rained down on each man, playground squabbling turns nasty. It’s a piece about how relationships can turn sour, friendships turning to violence in little more than a song by Ella Fitzgerald. By the end debris is scattered everywhere, the Arnolfini a warzone. Yet it ends on hope. As Voutsas begins sweeping up the stage, two audience members (plants?) offer to help him clear it away. The three work in tandem to clear the space. It’s an image that offers hope. It’s a work that lasts but an hour but will be thought about, dissected and analysed for many more.
Annie Siddon’s latest autobiographical piece How (Not) To Live In Suburbia tackles the loneliness of suburban life. Trapped in Twickenham, ‘home of English rugby,’ her zone 5 location to New Cross where her musician lover ups and leaves, seems as impossible to navigate as the Sergeyevna’s sisters determination to hit Moscow. An agent demanding a follow up to her first hit, the prohibitive cost of childcare, the falling apart of a marriage, it all leads to her feeling trapped and being visited by the walrus of loneliness who we get to see in Richard DeDomenici’s witty video work. In truth it may offer too much film to stage time, mainly because Siddon’s is such an expert story teller that every time she is off the stage she is missed. The work has similarities to another fringe hit, Fleabag so it’s not surprising to hear the work has been gobbled up by hungry tv executive and will be adapted in the coming months. Will Siddon’s follow the same path as Phoebe Waller Bridge and be appearing in a Marvel tentpole before we know it?
My favourite two shows of Mayfest 2018 had music at their heart. Off Broadway hit Old Stock A Refugee Love Story took up residence at Bristol Old Vic and its enchanting hybrid of folk -kletzmer – music theatre left me enchanted. It’s song cycle tells the story of two refugees who meet off the boat in Halifax Nova Scotia and their subsequent journey through marriage, family and their assimilation into Canandian life. The MC Ben Caplan is frankly extraordinary, coiffured up and with a voice that reminds one concurrently of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, his sardonic delivery always leaves it in the balance how this story will end. It balances the toughness of the lives these two encountered with something honestly romantic. There are no Disney love stories here but something equally as enriching emerges. Tender and tough, lyrical and cruel, it’s a beautiful thing that left me stirred.
Mayfest is great at allowing us to discover hybrid’s and nothing achieved that balance than the pure crowd pleasing, raucous We Are Lightning! A celebration and a defence of live music venues the Trinity Centre brought together music from across the spectrum of Bristol, a teenage band making their first steps, a 30 strong community choir, a brass band, heavy metal guitarists, all combine to make the most joyful hour I saw at this festival. Music matters in all its forms and has the potential to change lives, from the delicate male tenor taking a solo line in the choir to the guitar riffing leather jacketed student, poised and cool as her bands frontwomen. Joseph O’Farrell’s and Sam Halmarack’s piece raises the roof off the Trinity as come its climax as all the musicians join together for one last defiant howl. It’s what Mayfest does best, bringing forms and artists together to interrogate and discover and find new ways of making art. I already am counting down the days until 2020.