The Fierce Festival 2005 is a festival of art that “runs the gamut from high camp cabaret to visceral performance pieces and from solo shows on an empty stage to massed singing and dancing in the streets… sometimes shocking, often unpredictable, but always spectacular results.”
I arrived in Birmingham nursing a bastard of a hangover, twinned with the other bastard that is sleep deprivation. Since this was my virginal attempt at reviewing anything, I tried to keep the previous night’s weirdness and the shakes at bay. Partially successful. I met up with Paul from Fierce in the hotel lobby with two other reviewers who seemed a lot better equipped with cameras, minidiscs, notepads, and sobriety. It also started pissing down with rain and my clothes were of the swanky ilk so, all in all, a pretty ropey start.
I was looking forward to seeing 4 events: Marissa Carnesky’s Ghost Train, Ron Athey’s Judas Cradle, and Station House Opera’s Live from Paradise, but it turned out all those performances were happening the following weekend (except Station House Opera) so I had absolutely no idea what I was gonna see or what to expect…
The Great Swallow
First up was seeing the Belgian artist Benjamin Verdonck’s piece called The Great Swallow. He’s basically built a huge fucking nest halfway up one of Birmingham’s ex-landmark buildings called the Rotunda. It’s smack-bang in the middle of Birmingham’s Bull Ring which is a shopping section of the city: consume till you die and can consume no more. It’s a startling sight, especially in the context of where he’s built it. It’s street theatre without the jangle, and it’s David Blaine without the self-reverential demi-god shite. Verdonck would poke his head out once in a while, but quickly whip it back inside the nest, occasionally throwing out handfuls of straw maniacally, which would float down to the crowd below. It would have been interesting to have seen the progression of what he’s doing over the week, by the end of which he’ll apparently be producing a golden egg. It’s a testament that he managed to get through the 14-or-so procedural contracts from the authorities to have allowed something like this to happen. There's a picture available on the BBC News website that gives you an idea of what it looked like, although you don’t get the scale of it…
It’s raining, and the hair of the dog was screaming at me in tongues. We headed
to see Guy Dartnell & Tom Morris’s piece called
It was set in a specially constructed inflatable tent designed by a company
called the Architects of Air, famous for big light sculptures. The idea of the
piece was to have four babies doing whatever they please in the space, to be
watched by us, but because of seating arrangements we didnt get to see it.
Seeing as the football was on in the clash of the titans, we decided to go to
the pub, get a little lamped, watch footy and yap between ourselves on music
and art which we did. It was strange to hear group shouts of
“Stand up if you’re
not for City”, which had me puzzled because there wasn’t a City team playing. A
few pints down the line and clothes now dry, we head for the next performance.
Live from Paradise
Next on the bill was Station House Opera’s Live from Paradise. I’m still baffled as to how they managed to choreograph it - it was a contemporary dance theatre piece, but they used video streaming via the web to link three locations (a warehouse in London, a church in Colchester, and with us in an empty shop space in Birmingham) with each location being projected onto screens. Whatever was happening in real-time in London and Colchester was projected in Birmingham, whatever happened in Birmingham and Colchester is projected on screens in London etc.
In our space, it started off in the archetypal contemporary dance style of “bloke-sitting-in-a-chair-and-staring-at-audience-in-silence”. We’re about 10 minutes into it and the absurdity of the situation started making me laugh—well more of a soft giggle—it’s an austere performance and a certain decorum was expected. I wanted to crack one off really loudly as a gesture, but thankfully didn’t. At first the synchronicity between the three performance spaces was a little off-kilter, but as the piece progressed they started to integrated beautifully.
Trying to draw some sort of narrative from these sorts of performances I find almost impossible though. The dialogue is usually pretty fractured so no matter what the intended story is, I can usually only draw an abstracted feeling and this performance was no exception - it was a totally cerebral experience and my guess is that was the point, but sometimes you need a bellyful of thought rather than a head-full.
Next stop was the pub again, and by this time I could feel small cracks in my skull appearing—the sound of migraine. I meet more people and try to be as amiable as possible, hoping the next performance is less heady and more hearty.
Ladies and Gentlmen, C’est Birmingham by Duckie
We’re in the Patrick Centre and we enter a room and sit by large round tables. We’re offered complimentary cigars, and bottles of champagne at £10, which you cannot argue with: pre-pepped and pre-charmed, my headache dissipates and an ease washes over me—I can sense this is gonna be wicked—it’s pure cabaret and from the word go they’re nothing but unbridled joy. I fucking loved them.
They start with a song and dance routine dressed as tables themselves. After the intro we’re given a pile of Ducky Dollars and shown menus with a list of various acts to choose from: I chose the “Japanese Housewife” coming in at the very reasonable price of 8 Ducky Dollars and we all agree on “Nachos Snatchos” coming in a slightly more expensive 10 Ducky Dollars. Our table lights up and we’re served ventriloquism, over-sized masturbation, surreal karaoke, bathtubs and barbie can cans, northern raps played on tubas - properly anarchic, glamorous, incisive, and deeply moving and light-hearted at the same time. Really right up my street - one of those experiences that the more is talked about it, the less it seems to explain what it was about. I say it again: pure fucking joy. Apparently they have an Olivier award for it and I’m not in the slightest surprised. They’re on throughout most of the festival so get to Birmingham and see it just for this…
We head back to the pub for the third time. Conversation turns to music again and my migraine returns with a vengeance. It’s only 1am but I’m finding the talk about bands hard going, and head back to the hotel for my first decent kip in days. From what I’ve seen, the Fierce Festival is pretty superb and as far as I know the only one of its kind in the UK. I’m gonna be there next year without fail.