I lost my Hat Fair virginity this past weekend, selectively dipping in and out of the 40th anniversary edition of this outdoor theatre festival. Was it a satisfying experience? Not entirely, at least not if judged by the sometimes so-so artistic content of the five and a half (to be explained) shows I took in over the course of three days. A mere handful of performances is, I know, a drop in the bucket, given that there were four dozen or so items on offer. Still, that’s what I could manage. And in the bigger picture I’m grateful to the Hat Fair. Setting questions of aesthetics aside, for me the event was a fine excuse to get to know better not only several companies and/or artists but also Winchester itself. Below are my chronologically organised responses….
‘The Legend of Hamba’ by Tiata Fahodzi (translation: ‘theatre of the emancipated’) Location: Chapter House Lawn
Co-commissioned by Without Walls, Brighton Festival, GDIF, Hat Fair and Watford Palace Theatre, this Afro-British production’s strongest feature was its costumes and makeup. The four performers (three men and one woman) each wore boldly colourful garb, gabbling away in Ndbele (one of Zimbabwe’s three official languages) as they charged into a setting anchored by yellow plastic barrels and crates. What ensued was a somewhat dramaturgically muddy morality tale of greed, war and religion, but put across with no little brio. The physical spectacle they provided didn’t need refining but rather, perhaps, greater clarification.
‘The Lift’ by Wet Picnic Location: Abbey Gardens
Now eight years young, Winchester’s own Wet Picnic was one of the companies presented under the umbrella of Hat Fair’s Anglo-French partnership with the Zepa 2 project. How glad I am to have seen it. The sole set-piece – a handsome, quasi-quaint lift on wheels – was immediately entrancing as it was propelled across the paths and grass of Abbey Gardens. The show’s premise is interactivity, with individual audience members invited by a cast of three bonkers bellboys to each pick one of nine floors at which this magical lift might stop. The actors were wonderfully good manipulators, inducing the assembled audience’s participation in such shenanigans as synchronised dancing, a barking international spy romp and a soppily kitsch romance. The culmination was a wedding celebration. I grinned my way throughout ‘The Lift,’ delighted by its perfectly contained manic wit (including verbal) and air of silly-smart invention.
Commissioned by Small Wonders, ‘Clunk’ is a wee charmer of a piece designed to tap into the rhythmic and musical impulses of under-5s. It took awhile for comfort levels to be established in the nicely secluded but, in truth, slightly off-the-beaten-track Friary Gardens. With gentle diligence the brightly orange-clad cast of three (two women and one man) worked to elicit the engagement of a small gathering of children and adults, all sitting on tiny red plastic benches adorned with spongy faux instruments. Although the musician-performers’ intentions and methods may not have initially been clear enough, their efforts gradually yielded results. By the end we were all joining in the creation of a song accompanied by movement. Sweet and, ultimately, winning.
‘The House’ by Le Collectif G. Bistaki Cooperatzia Location: The Broadway
Part of the Hat Fair’s festival-within-a festival La Fête Franglais, G. Bistaki is a handful of juggler-dancers launched in 2006. Wearing long coats, the five performers attracted quite a numerically substantial crowd, too, with a show utilising handbags and especially roof tiles with precision-style risk and humour (e.g., when attached to leads the tiles functioned like dogs taken on walkies). Apparently ‘The House’ went on for an hour but, alas, I simply couldn’t stay for more than half of it because I wanted to catch something else (see below) across town. Repeatedly the cast allowed the energy they conjured to drop, with sequences set to music followed by spots of relative inactivity sans a soundtrack or much discernible drive. My overriding impression of the first 30 minutes of ‘The House’ was of a highly adept company that may have erred on the side of self-indulgence.
I was looking forward to Nuno Silva’s outdoor complement ( another Without Walls commission) to his recent full-length dance-theatre production ‘A Darker Shade of Fado.’ As a bare-chested and seductively manipulative demon/god with a vocal gift, Silva didn’t disappoint. This experienced, muscularly graceful Portuguese-born performer has an immensely powerful stage presence. I was, however, less sure about the work itself. Silva, with black markings on his face, played a mysteriously mythical figure whose literal and would-be fiery encounters with a couple (a bearded musician-dancer transformed into an only semi-convincing bull, and a singing-dancing woman) eventually led to their escape via a metal boat. Flames were a big feature of this late-night show – in pots, pool-like tracings on the playing area’s paving stones, and at one juncture snaking up on the boat itself. Less effective was storytelling which failed to make me either believe in or care much about what I was witnessing. Some of the movement was simply too uncommunicatively posey, while the boat (steered by a bulky technician in a hoodie and black eyemask) was a pretty clunky device. I was also left unenlightened about fado, the mournfully beautiful Portuguese national song-style from which Silva was supposedly drawing inspiration (and which he vocalises beautifully; more would’ve been welcome). A sizable chunk of credit for the show’s aural atmosphere belongs to composer and musician Sabio Janiak, stationed behind the other performers. But despite several potentially captivating elements I was unable to truly sense this show’s soul.
‘[i]land’ by Marc Brew Company Location: The Great Hall
Like Nuno Silva, Marc Brew has a core background in dance. Devised by the choreographer-director with his cast, this three-hander (also partly instigated by Without Walls) can boast of an attractive island setting composed mainly of sand. The island might also be construed as a boat, given the mast jutting up out of the centre and the web-like weave of rope attached to it. What we have here is a triangular relationship between a ginger-bearded man (Rob Heaslip, sturdy); a second fellow (Brew himself, gaunt) who materialises, strikingly, from the sandy set’s secret centre; and a woman (Rebecca Evans, winsome) who could be the red-lipped embodiment of the sea. They appear one by one, interact a bit in a vaguely, playfully dance-y manner, and then construct together a wheelchair with sails in which Brew drifts away. Evans slips away, too, leaving Heaslip once again on his lonesome… There are themes at work in ‘[i]land’ – loneliness, solidarity, evanescence and so on – that for me didn’t quite add up in terms of metaphorically telling, poetically resonant impact. As with Silva’s show I couldn’t emotionally claim the experience. That’s not to negate what was nevertheless a pleasant and not unmemorable attempt to convey something profound; I just didn’t feel it. Still, thumbs up to the cast, the ingenuity of designer Will Holt and Scott Patterson’s unobtrusively engaging recorded score in a soft-rock style.
So, to sum up my first Hat Fair: one big and one considerably smaller hit, a half-baked larger-scaled diversion plus a trio of mixed-response but not negligible misses.