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Delicate fuchsia, yellow and blue clouds bob happily into the sky above urban rooftops in Mayfest 2014’s publicity image used on the front cover of the festival programme and various posters dotted across the city. The sky above the candy-floss blobs is endlessly azure, promising nothing but the entrance to summer and lightness of spirit. Believe this image and you would be forgiven to expect that Mayfest was going to be the theatre equivalent of instagrammed Ladurée macaroons and a turn on an equine carousel.

Which, to be honest, all sounds rather nice in its own right and I might well have still gone along with the fun and games had they offered the chance to wear pastel colours unironically. However, Mayfest 2014 was far more than a candyfloss wonderland. The programme was ambitious, humourous and highly intelligent. This was most definitely not theatre-lite, but a programme of events that – especially with shows like The Roof and Ariel – showed contemporary theatre and performance at its immersive best.

It also included, in contrary to the pink clouds, a distinctly gothic and surrealist flavor, and an obsession for the body in extremis. In Andrea Milternova’s Dance of the Magnetic Ballerina, the illuminated severe sinews and skeletal qualities of the dancer’s body were turned into biological specimens to be winced at, but also obsessively observed. Whilst Laura Dannequin, in Hardy Animal, explored the suffocating horror of chronic lower back pain in another dancer’s body, a subject that reminds us that however hard we sculpt and discipline the body we can never fully control or delay its degeneration. In Lulu: A Murder Ballad, the Tiger Lillies growled out dirty tunes about the Victorian prostituted body, the body lusted and slathered over and never fully-owned by the person inside of it. Then in The Roof the performance itself was slightly delayed owing to an injury to one performer, but nonetheless commenced into free running acrobatics – another demonstration of athletic perfectionism and endurance. And finally, in Ariel, I stared again at beautiful bodies this time more aesthetically than athletically perfect and I remembered what it felt like to descend into time-swallowing obsession with the physical beauty of a stranger.

An unhealthy fascination with the human body is, perhaps, to some degree both inherently gothic and surreal, but this theme was present in other ways too. Lulu, was probably the most overtly gothic, with bowler hats, face paint and ripped-up Victoriana corsets. Blood seeped across the scenery as we neared the end of our heroine’s demise at the hands of Jack the Ripper and the urban landscapes of fin de siècle Paris and London had a dank beautifulness to them.

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However, Milternova’s Magnetic Ballerina was also equally unsettling with its creepy contortionist movements and doppelgänger shadows. The assumed prettiness of the tutu was undermined by the jerkiness of the movements and Milternova’s protruding muscles. She finally ends up balanced in a position that means I loose track of where her head is. If it is where I think it should be, then there’s obviously been a sudden Revolutionary France twist to the production, and if it’s not then how she got into her current position must have been the work of Carabosse.

The Dance of the Magnetic Ballerina should theoretically not be as good as it is, or rather as captivating as it is. For about 30 minutes she jerks and shudders to high tempo dance music, highlighted by lights that intermittently turn off completely and hold the audience in complete darkness – not even the emergency exit lights are on. I know how dark it was because I made the mistake of choosing a moment one second before to change seats, only to then be held hostage in the aisle, terrified of taking a wrong step and either plunging off the balcony or, you know, sitting on someone’s lap. The magnetic ballerina is just a ballerina, illuminated and trembling through dance moves to electronic music. But she is oddly addictive to watch. The intensity of the music, the weirdness of her over-worked body and the constant feeling of suspense make this show peculiarly watchable and intense.

The Roof, on the other hand, is without the touch of the gothic, but is firmly surreal nonetheless. It may just be the sensation of filing into an arena without a roof amongst numerous people all more sensibly dressed than you, or the actual sight of scaffolding, flood lights and stages that makes this section of Mayfest 2014 feel more like an actual festival than any other part, or it may be that immersive theatre at its best necessarily calls to duty endorphins and dizziness of the same kind you feel when waiting as a 16 year old for The Strokes to appear on stage ready to mumble into microphones. The Roof, to put it succinctly, is phenomenal.

I wonder if, now that we have Assassin’s Creed, this is the only thing left to do with the old world of Sega Megadrive – recreate it ourselves. My family once won a Sega Megadrive from the back of Penguin chocolate bar packet, and it came with a video game very much like the one acted out here, only with penguins as the main characters. I understand why Requardt and Rosenberg didn’t opt for my version of the game, as penguins undoubtedly make very poor free runners. I also don’t recall our first post-BBC computer experience involving inter-level tableaux closely related to the red room sequences in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Aside from Lynch, the general feel to the piece also owed something to early Tarantino – True Romance Americana, especially – and a little cast of other unsettling characters calling to mind, variously, The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave and the collected works of Tom Robbins – I’m thinking Only Cow Girls Get the Blues and the naked dancing in white go-go boots in Skinny Legs and All, in particular.

Mayfest has always set out to bring theatre to a wider audience, and I believe this goal is easier to achieve when you literally take over a large and busy space in the middle of the waterfront. Why? Because a newly-erected arena slap-bang in Millennium Square is a little harder to ignore than another poster advertising another evening sitting, as my husband often mentions, folded into an uncomfortable seat. Shows like The Roof revolutionise theatre because they bring the performance outside of the normal theatre space. The crowd who attended on the Friday when I went were different from the normal theatre crowd I usually see in Bristol. Families, for instance, were there. Families who had bought young sons who I guess they thought would find free-running cool.

And in that moment I felt that Mayfest had really achieved the ambitions it had when I interviewed its joint Artistic Director Matthew Austin last year before Mayfest 2013. These are performances that interest people outside of the normal collection of theatre attendees, yet simultaneously really excite and re-awaken those who do normally attend as well.

I’d never like to insinuate, as a theatre critic, that the events I attend garner anything less than my full attention and yet, after a long day running here, there and everywhere, followed by a pint of pre-show beer and the warmth of most theatres, coupled with the soporific-hued red velvet chairs, can often bring about at least the beginnings of yawns. Not so with a show like The Roof. The physical experience of standing up during a performance wearing headphones and being forced to move about to follow the performance makes it almost impossible to be anything less than consumed with the events taking place. As I once said about theatre in the round, this is much closer to Chris Goode’s notion of theatre in a field – the audience is within the performance, not merely an idle spectator being talked down to from the height of a stage.

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The other show for which this is true is Ariel. This show takes place in Bristol Central Library and, unlike The Roof which colonises the environment it is in, Ariel absorbs and makes use of the space, which itself becomes a part of the narrative. It helps that Bristol Central Library is a particularly beautiful and ethereal place to begin with. In the foyer, often used for small exhibitions, the turquoise marble tiles offer memories of somewhere much more grand, an Alma-Tadema bath house perhaps, and I noticed for the first time that day how the patterns in a large plaque of it drip down in a wonderful oily splodge. It is lovely and, like all things associated with the (dying?) trade of writing, holds within it the scent of woody nostalgia.

Lucian Freud and his two brothers, Stephen and Clement, were as children known as the archangels as their middle names were Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Mr. and Mrs. Freud obviously missed a trick, as the most beautiful of the archangel names – especially when pronounced the way of Mr. Sharon rather than the Little Mermaid – is Ariel. The Archangel Ariel (or Uriel) is the angel of light, the prayer offered on the back of a little stained glass picture of him on my dressing tables asks: ‘Bring divine light into my life; Make me see the good inside all of us.’ Ariel is therefore an acutely suitable name for a persona rendered in photography, an artistic medium which is pretty much composed of light itself.

Alice Tatton-Brown’s devotion is not to the archangels, but to the beauty of an unknown woman, Muriel, photographed repeatedly by her husband as Ariel. There are many, many versions of Ariel: Ariel posing as a nymph by a Waterhouse pool; Ariel stretching out from inside a sheet of gauze and Ariel looking ready for a weekend in the West Country in tweeds and cashmere. Ariel has the easy glamourous blend of masculine and feminine shared by Lee Miller and the viewer cannot help but buy into the obsession of the photographer, her husband, towards her. I leave Ariel feeling that I am now a member of a secret cult. I can never really explain to anyone what took place in that library on that wet afternoon, all I know now is how it must feel to climb down the escape stairs from the highway in 1Q84.

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Of course, not each and every one of the shows on at Mayfest 2014 had a foothold in the gothic or a taste for the body pushed to its limits. One of my highlights was seeing Molly Naylor and Iain Ross perform If Destroyed Still True on the same night Hannah Sullivan put on Echo Beach. Both productions were about re-visiting childhood bad memories and learning now to negotiate being an adult. Both were also high in Indie credentials – not least in their predilection for denim and striped T-shirts. But whilst Echo Beach had the same sense of suspended drama and half-pronounced thoughts found in a Terrence Malick film, IDST was like the Wes Anderson equivalent. I can’t decide whether it was the great genius or the great problem with Echo Beach that the utter sorrow of Sullivan came across so loudly. I wanted, at times, to just wrap her in a duvet and tell her ‘It’s OK, we all went through that shit too,’ and make her eyes look less watery. Naylor, on the other hand, doesn’t need looking after, as her worldview is perfect. She is, above all else, very funny and, as with the most humourous people, also very sensitive. Her narrative is a bit like a more middle class and Indie version of a Kate Tempest work and I adore every second of it. If therapy could be like this, I’d certainly start paying for it again.

Mayfest is a festival that grows from strength to strength each year. In the city of Bristol which is overrun with festivals throughout the year, and also within the calendar of the theatre world, it promises not to get forgotten because it chooses to always stay connected to the very newest and most exciting of theatre – Fuel, being just one example. In this respect then, it is like Ariel: the bringer of light into a room otherwise filled with red velvet chairs.

Main image: Dance of the Magnetic Ballerina – photo: Jan Komarek

The Roof by Requard and Rosenberg (Fuel), will be performed in London from 30th May – 28th June; If Destroyed Still True by Molly Naylor and Iain Ross,will be at BAC, London, from 24th – 25th July

http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/mayfest-2014/

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