The Flare International Festival of New Theatre is daring new work from theatre artists from 10 different countries in 4 Manchester venues across the course of 6 days.
The productions are intended to challenge the audience to reflect upon the experience of watching theatre as much as encountering what is on offer. This triple bill at Z-arts is indeed challenging in differing ways and to different degrees.
Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue is written and performed by Daan Van Bendegem from The Netherlands. It tells the story of how one in the series of abstract expressionist artist Barnett Newman’s works of the title name was damaged by Gerard Jan Van Bladeren.
The painting was restored by Daniel Goldreyer who was accused of destroying it for a second time by his coarse work. The report into the event was suppressed by Amsterdam Council for 20 years and was only released in 2013.
Daan Van Bendegem unveils this story in various clever ways. He begins by assailing the audience very loudly and in an ecstatic frenzy and personifying Newman declares how and why he is an abstract artist. The rest of the piece is a navigation between this frenzied style where he talks very loudly and very very fast as he’s telling the story and a more calm manner.
He gives us a very quick lecture on Newman and abstract expressionism using photos he places on the floor. The whole performance is performed in front of a mock-up of the famous Newman work the destruction of which he mimes at one point. He uses anger very effectively such as when he rails at a picture of the gallery director who orders the restoration.
There is a brilliantly sustained sequence where Daan acts out the various ‘phone calls he made to different authorities to find out the truth of the suppressed report. It’s very funny as he is repeatedly kept on hold and then shunted from pillar to post all the while only just keeping his temper at this treatment.
It’s a bravura performance and almost an angry pastiche of US comic Shelley Berman and his famous ‘phone calls. He gets great laughs from the audience when he sings the various pieces of music he hears when he’s on hold.
The piece ends with a wonderfully absurd brief chat between himself as Daan and himself as Barnett Newman where they discuss the meaning of the painting while he holds aloft a picture of some fluffy kittens. This 40-minute show is an erudite joy from start to finish and is hugely enjoyed by the audience.
After a short interval, we reconvened for the second in the bill. You Need The Glass And You Need The Milk is compiled and realised by Slovenian Theatre Artist Dorian Silec Petek.
This is a piece of durational art masquerading as a theatre performance. The blurb refers to being undemanding, allowing us to be with our thoughts and gently guided. After undergoing the very unpleasant event for some 50 minutes, this reviewer can only conclude that the description is meant to be ironic.
Throughout this time, our ears are assaulted by much too loud sounds which may be drumming or scratching but are as unintelligible as the constant voice-over. The stage has a series of heads of shop dummies on the playing area and there are slides and films projected on to a screen which is in the shape of the frame of a house.
There are distinct sections and during each one of the heads is illuminated by a spotlight before the sequence moves on to the next and so on. At different times there are very bright stroboscopic lamps used and flashing fluorescent tubes which are fitted on the floor of the stage. There are lights which investigate the audience in the manner of an interrogation.
The slides are of rooms in a ’50s-style house where there is an eye literally keeping watch on the room and the audience. There are regular bursts of dry ice and linked lighting connected to the images, e.g. green when the image is of trees and red when it’s flames and so on.
Quite what any of this is supposed to mean is very difficult to consider as the sounds and the beams are so invasive and physically distressing. It put this reviewer in mind of the scene in The Ipcress File where Michael Caine is being tortured. It feels like a kind of an assault to the senses as because it has been declared performance in a theatre it’s very difficult to leave unlike in a piece of durational art in a gallery.
In fact many people did leave before the conclusion as did this reviewer. By this point the house lights had come up and there was a ceaselessly intoning monotonous drone on the loudspeaker.
After a much-needed respite in the foyer, it was time for the final work in the bill. Fight Fight – That’s All We Can Do is devised and performed by Ja Ja Ja Ne Ne Ne PL.
The performers Magda Tuka and Anita Wach are from Poland. They are playing with ideas and images of violence and challenge the audience who may be unused to seeing women fighting. Through the 35-minute piece, they adopt a range of costumes and characterisations but at its heart it’s a series of confrontations between the pair.
These are of an increasingly absurd nature. They start as prize fighters and alternately and very convincingly grapple and taunt each other with bizarre jibs and boasts. Then they are in a disco or so it seems and fight each other again deftly walking the line between real and stage violence.
We then see them clash in a city plaza with very funny reactions from the passers-by and while we’re watching this on film they are actually arm wrestling in front of the screen. There is a sequence where one is partially naked and covers her modesty with a bunch of flowers which she proceeds to dispense to the audience. The other assaults her while appearing to be dressed as some kind of pseudo Nazi.
The best is saved until last where they douse themselves in powder and wrestle in silhouette beneath a picture of ancient Egyptian relics and then again on film they walk naked up and down a railway track.
Most of this defies meaning but there is much humour and challenge to the audience over what we think we are witnessing and what our reactions should be or in fact are. How complicit are we in the violence we are accepting? The soundtrack is also delicious ranging from Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” to “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” by Marlene Dietrich.
This pair has the audience from the get-go and don’t relent. It is most impressive and a great way to end the triple bill.
The overall impression is that the pieces which consider that there is a line beyond which an audience should not be pushed are the most successful. The other, however satisfying for the artists involved, probably belongs in a gallery where the patrons can take or leave their offering with no great statement of desertion or disapproval being risked.