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Mayfest (Bristol)

Matt Trueman reviews Bristol's annual festival of contemporary theatre

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Of Riders and Running Horses
© Mayfest

A festival is not just a programme of events. The best of them offer a break from the everyday and reach for something exceptional. That might be the Bacchanalian frenzy of Glastonbury or the free-for-all of the Edinburgh Fringe, but when they're well curated, festivals can do something altogether profound. They can be interventions: occasions to reflect, imagine a better world and transform the one we've got.

Mayfest began in 2003, under the auspices of the Bristol Old Vic, but soon went independent, spurred on by the city's thriving live art and performance culture, winning National Portfolio status last year. A combination of local artists and national independents, Mayfest's programme is far more than the sum of its parts. Clever programming makes it so.

Death lingers through this year's festival. Jo Bannon's Dead Line carves open a moment for contemplation. Alone in a hotel room, the telephone rings. A "soul midwife" talks you through the stages of death; the body's shrinking with age, the loss of senses and strength. What we call aging turns out to be dying. It's a process, and just as childhood means growing up, death means slowing down. Outside the window, framed in light, the world carries on.

Life is bigger than us, as Sam Winston's installation Birth-Day makes clear. It marks the 180,000 births and 80,000 deaths that happen each day, representing each as a circle on two huge pieces of paper. We add our own. You pick your person to honour and they become one of many. Organic patterns emerge: contours and a coastline.

There's another island in This Last Tempest: Shakespeare's. Uninvited Guests pick up after Prospero has broken his staff and set sail, leaving Ariel and Caliban behind. Enslaved and oppressed for years, they have their freedom. Now they have to make their peace.

Richard Dufty and Jessica Holman reinstate the pair's dignity, playing them not as monsters, but as beings with hearts and minds. They restore meaning to the words, selecting only those they really need. It's a political piece, one that dares to look beyond the revolution, not just call for it. With a thunderous, clamorous purge - this isle really is full of noises - it dreams of utopia and Gonzalo's commonwealth.

Transformation comes courtesy of choreographer Dan Canham. He's found a readymade stage on top of a concrete car park: a bright blue rectangle with a yellow grid demarcating the spaces. On it, one by one, a group of five women gather to dance, sometimes individually, sometimes in step, to a jaunty live score by Luke Harney and Sam Halmarack, with an infectious, itching powder beat. Stood around the edge, spectators shimmy in time. Up above, in the apartment block next door, faces are pressed against windows.

Of Riders and Running Horses goes in cycles: a soloist starts, then others join in. They fizz off into their own thing, then come back together. It's about leading and following, about movements building. Canham's choreography is a cultural collage: quoting from Balinese shamans and Scottish dancing, New Zealand rituals and American jive. It ends with an invitation and, on top of a car park, on a warm May evening, in the middle of Bristol, 100 people jump in and dance.

Mayfest runs in venues across Bristol until 24th May. Full listings can be found at www.mayfestbristol.co.uk.

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