By Flossie Waite and Luke Billingham
Guest programmer Tony Reekie began his introductory blog to this year’s TakeOff Festival by quoting everyone’s favourite 20th Century Italian Marxist prisoner intellectual, Antonio Gramsci. Keen not to be outdone, we think that we can travel a bit further back in time, to a different part of Europe, to mangle a quote by Gramsci’s inspiration, Karl himself:
“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Brexit.”
With new headlines every day conveying the latest erratic development, it’s a spectre that’s very tricky to exorcise, and has been howling all the louder as we approach the appropriately ghoulish date of supposed exit, October 31st.
It is timely, then, that this year’s TakeOff was its most European programme to date, with this troublesome poltergeist lurking in our midst. Though never invited directly on-stage, it was difficult to avoid viewing the shows through its cobwebbed ectoplasm. Take Andy Cannon’s Macbeth adaptation for ages 8+, Is This A Dagger?. Described as “a cautionary tale about the lengths people will go to get to the top”, we couldn’t help thinking that Eton could have done with a few performances in the ‘80s (and the 70s… and the 60s… and the 50s… ‘Twas ever thus.)
There were direct references to borders and division, communication and migration to be found at the festival. In There is a Noise, from Danish and Norwegian theatremakers Freya Sif Hestnes and Marina Popovic, a casual conversation between friends became a potent exploration of memory and identity. Terra Incognita’s one-woman show My Friend Selma shared the true story of one girl’s escape from war-torn Bosnia to a disused boarding school in suburban Leeds.
For younger audiences, Dutch company Theatergroep Kwatta’s Jabberbabble was a more whimsical, figurative piece about making space for strangers, told entirely in a made-up language (though terms and vulgarities from a range of European languages were discernible – from ‘si’ to ‘poo’.) From pseudo-multi-lingualism, to bonafide bi-lingualism: Muckers (a co-production from the egg, Oxford Playhouse, Theatr Iolo and Conde Duque) was the result of international collaboration between Spain and England, with a mixed cast and creative team, and both languages used throughout the performance; Théatre de la Guimbarde’s Cache-Cache was performed in French and English.
Though the festival didn’t shy away from the current political landscape, it wasn’t bound to it, also delving into more universal experiences. Five, a WinterWalker and Theatre Hullabaloo co-production, was an utterly joyful sensory piece about discovering the world for the first time; Barrowland Ballet’s exuberant Tiger Tale and Playful Tiger celebrated the importance of play within families. Sacékripa’s Vu was a deeply human performance about our individual obsessiveness and shared desire for efficiency: a nail-biting 50 minutes of daring stunts executed with surgical precision, as one man tried to make the perfect cup of tea.
From soaring through the clouds in Sky to visiting the ‘freaks’ in Fly’s Victorian Circus and the giants of OAR’s augmented reality, there was a real breadth of form, focus and content on show. What tied these wide-ranging productions together was their exceptional quality: proof of the possibilities when you’re drawing from a diverse pool of artistic talent and life experience.
With the TYA sector facing such uncertainty, it would have been understandable for delegates to be preoccupied with nervous chatter about dwindling funding opportunities and the difficulties of continental touring. But the conversations at TakeOff were consistently outward-looking and forward-focused. A week after its Westminster launch, we were privileged to hear from Durham University’s Professor Simon James about The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education – a report that, though it charts the challenges facing the arts in schools, affirmed the collective wisdom represented in a room full of committed evangelicals for young people’s right to creative expression. In the Getting to Know You session, artists, programmers and producers shared their exciting plans for new work and connections with other countries. The ASSITEJ UK Breakfast Meeting was a determined rallying cry for a new narrative, one that places the UK sector firmly within a global artistic community, ready to take opportunities and celebrate all the good that is happening. At a time when the UK seems to be retreating into nationalistic nostalgia, the Radical & Relevant Panel Discussion was a powerful reminder of the sector’s commitment to courage and innovation.
2019 might have been TakeOff’s most European festival to date, but what’s telling is that this continental cocktail was planned before June 23rd 2016 made EU-watching a national pastime. Over these last three days, it hasn’t felt like a dispirited group on the brink of something awful, but a re-energized community poised to create more wonderful work.