Theatre News

Spill Festival of Performance takes over Ipswich

2014 marks the sixth edition of the Spill Festival and the second time it has been hosted in Ipswich, home town of its director Robert Pacitti.

The theme this year is "surrender", but this has not been a noose-like constraint for many of the performances selected for this festival. One obvious irony for this theme is that the main performance space is the disused police station at the centre of Ipswich which – rather than being the place where criminals surrender to arrest – is one in which audiences surrender to performance.

Using this space is often inspired, with the police officers' gym-hall being used for performances such as Naked Boys Reading, Weird Seance and Mouse's Mary Pop-ins. The acoustics offer excellent reverberation.

Jamal Harewood
Jamal Harewood
© Tara Yarahmadi

Spill also showcases the potential of new or under-used performance spaces such as the Ipswich Arts Centre and the Art School Exhibition Galleries.

This festival is primarily concerned with "live art" and, while there were theatrical pieces in the conventional sense, a fair number of the performances differ by either requiring participation (such as Jamal Harewood's The Privileged) or a walk through the town of Ipswich like Kris Canavan's Dredge.

One of the most traditional, yet at the same time challenging, performances was Getinthebackofthevan's reworking of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. In an energetic fun-filled parody of musical theatre, the cast pokes fun at how musicals have their characters spontaneously burst into song and dance and also the restrictions on staging placed by copyright owners.

The whole performance is reminiscent of "Springtime for Hitler" in The Producers – that those in on the joke laugh at the parody while those not open-minded walk out in disgust! Another energetic and moving performance is Peter McMaster's all-male interpretation of Wuthering Heights where the story of the Brontë classic is fused with the cast's experience of being men.

At the Jerwood Dancehouse on the final night of Spill, Gob Squad put on a 240 minute performance of Are you with us? This is a humorous performance that the audience could dip in and out of where the cast was filmed by two cameras and projected on to two large screens.

One screen has an interviewer in close face shot while the other screen has the rest of the cast adopting a variety of characters from a troop of terrorists to a party at a wedding. It has a nervous energy that left the audience laughing uncomfortably; you were never quite sure whether the cast is improvising or whether this is in fact well-rehearsed.

In addition to these more theatrical pieces, there are three unconventional pieces that really stand out. Jamal Harewood's The Privileged is at turns simple, beguiling and hauning. The audience is at the centre of the action as to how to treat Jamal (who starts the performance clothed as a polar bear).

Similarly, the duo There There perform various interventions challenging the issues and prejudices that face East Europeans in British society. Finally, a beautiful installation at the Ipswich Arts Centre is Ray Lee's Siren where swirling electronic oscillators orbit on tripods provide a hypnotic tapestry and audio and visual delight.

There are indeed a few gems that are part of the festival but, due to the young nature of the work they require much mining. One has the impression that there is an industry of festival pieces, rather than festivals being the ground in which work can develop.

It's good that this festival is growing in strength but it felt at times as though Hoxton or Dalston had relocated to Ipswich for the weekend. Much of the audience appeared to be composed of either other artists or festival organisers from across Europe. For me, this seems to defeat the point of theatre speaking to new audiences.