I have one last thing to catch up on for theatre prior to The Event, and that is the Vault Festival. This is going to be a short roundup, because – in order to juggle things around a very congested winter calendar – I split my visit over the last two weekends. And as we all know, the last week did not go ahead. The weekend before was not unscathed either, with one notable casualty being the Sunday performances of 39 Degrees which I wanted to see.
As always, not everything I see gets a review, so we’re down to three. But out of these three, there was an exceptional standard, far in excess of a normal Vault itinerary. Let’s see what we’ve got.
This is difficult one to review impartially. It resonated a lot with me personally, and had I been reviewing this for a different publication I would have asked for a second opinion from someone more detached. But sod it, it’s my blog, I can say what I want, and if I don’t say this, I’m not sure anyone else will.
Glitch is set in the world of speed-runs. I actually know what speed-runs are (don’t ask me why, you don’t need to know), but if you don’t, this will need a bit of explaining. Not to be confused with e-sports (don’t get her started on e-sports), this is a special kind of computer game competition where you have to get from beginning to end as quickly as possible, cheating allowed*. Reckon you could quickly defeat all nine bosses in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Loo-ser. There are defect in the code that enable you to zip from first dungeon to last. Eight minutes easy. Yes, really. There is even niche following, and it’s when a contest comes to Sutward that Kelly has a chance to take part.
(* Actually, they allow cheating, but not cheating cheating. Woe betide anyone caught overclocking the processor.)
The reason Kelly’s never taken part before is that she’s on the autistic spectrum, and in her case never overcome her aversion to leaving her familiar home town. Instead, she has a close relationship with her family, and she developed a taste for speed-running with her father – and the prize money might just pay for an operation that might just save his life. For the first time, Kelly can fix with peers who admire and respect her for what she can do. As it happens, she’s about to get a lot of respect because she knows a glitch no-one else does. The description her father used is that it’s a bit like her brain – taking a short cut to leave out the unimportant stuff to get to what matters. And a lesser diversity themed play might have left there and centred the play around this profound observation.
But – good observation though it is – this is not what the play is based around. Instead, it’s about the damage of casual prejudice. This is not Rain Man, and unlike Raymond, Kelly is perfectly capable of looking after herself, and only reason she would have any problems is if someone chooses to make an issue out of someone looking and sounding slightly out of place. In the speedrun community, not a chance, all misfits are welcome. Sadly, that cannot said of Sutward. One woman desperately searches Dr. Google for cures for her son’s autism that are probably neither possible nor helpful. Another woman really has it in for Kelly for no crime other than not sufficiently fitting in (one suspects she made a judgement first, and on learning the reason Kelly can’t help it just doubled down with more of the same). Even though Kelly straight As in her exams, that just convinces the local paper exams must be getting easier – and that’s not even the worst of it. By accident or design, Glitch creates a world where this sort of narrow-mindedness is accepted as normal behaviour.
Now, there was one thing that didn’t quite work out, and that was the captioning. I loved the format of the captioning, done entirely in 8-bit graphics and speech bubbles, the problem was this was too damned good and distracted from Nellis’s actual performance on stage. The other problem was that she wasn’t quite word perfect. Normally, nobody would have noticed – believe me, I’ve dropped some far worse clangers and got away with it – but since the correct words were flashing up on the eye-catching screen, it made every error stick out like a sore thumb. Hopefully that issue will go away with more rehearsing, but it might be better to revert to normal captions – maybe the pictures could go on an audio version.
That, however, does not distract from the writing. The play is described as partly autobiographical, and I don’t know how much of this she personally relates to it, but I certainly do. I really wish there was no need for a play where the life-changing breakthrough is realising you’re never going to be accepted where you are and instead find the strength to move on to somewhere that does, but there is. I suspect Krystina Nellis herself doesn’t realise how important her writing is, but as long are large swathes of the arts world whose idea of solidarity is occasional act of performative outrage, that’s the way it is. So please please please keep this going – there’s a lot of people in the theatre world who need to understand this.
The Vault Festival gets many a new play on the cultural map, but one person who does not need their help is Clementine Bogg-Hargoves. Skank was originally performed on home turf at Harrogate, but it’s been the nearby Greater Manchester Fringe where she really made her mark. But this, I believe, was the first foray southwards, and having missed her Newcastle appearance last year, I was determined to catch it this time round. It does not disappoint.
Skank has been described as a “Northern Fleabag”, which isn’t a bad description, but I consider her to be a female version of Peep Show. (I’m wary of describing shows as a female version of anything, but she’s a a Peep Show fan and she approves.) Skank is a kind-of hybrid of Mark and Jeremy, combining Mark’s petty obsessions with Jeremy’s complete absence of morals and dignity. The humour should be familiar to Peep Show fans too. An attempt to take part in group knitting result in the boredom attack anyone could have predicted, and her interests alternate between finding a suitable way to recycle a baked beans can and a doomed attempt to lure Sexy Gary to bed.
But but but but but but but but … There’s one important difference, something Peep Show would never do. It’s pretty much a given that nothing will ever change Mark or Jeremy – but that is not the case here. An event is coming that will put all of Skank’s frivolous pursuits into perspective. And afterwards things can’t go back to normal; and the throwaway comments now ring hollow. To some extent, this is also how the plot of Fleabag goes, but even Fleabag’s troubles seem small fry for a while.
There’s just one niggle I have to raise. As with most solo plays, there are numerous other characters to content with. Skank uses a mixture of voiceovers and re-enactments, and the voiceovers are a mixture of herself and other people. All of these approaches are valid, but mixed together it starts to get confusing over who’s who, especially when she uses her own voice for that of her brother. That’s only an aside though. Clementine Bogg Hargroves has flown the flag for Greater Manchester Fringe well, and more importantly, flown the flag for the open festival. The Vault Festival can’t work as anything but a curated festival, but there’s always a worry that they might normalise curation as standard for festivals. Skank could not be finer example of a play that has does not need approval of vetting committees and is judged a success by the only judge that matters: the audience. This is something not to be forgotten.
The Brief Life and Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria
We now pause our reviews for a steward’s enquiry. Normally, I decide who get an Ike Award immediately after seeing the play and that decision stands. I would not normally consider an upgrade. However, the events of this year have reminded me of the value of what this play does. With so many people fighting culture wars to impose their preferred version of history, with their preferred bits highlighted and the inconvenient bits glossed over, it has never been more important to understand that history is not to be glossed or romanticised. The reality is – and always has been, and always will be – that history is messy and complicated, and rarely divides into heroes and villains. And that’s what Out of the Forest Theatre achieves so well.
They say it’s difficult to make history without sometimes getting your hands dirty, and that’s especially the case when you’re head of state of a country allied to the Nazis. That’s the first quandry: Bulgaria could have taken the moral high ground and fought the Nazis, but can you blame them for not wanting to share Yugoslavia’s fate. There again, there were the tempting incentives of Thrace and Macedonia from defeated enemies of Hitler. Where does “have to” stop and “wanted to” start. In the middle of this is King Boris. (Bulgaria, somewhat bizarrely, chose to become a monarchy, and apparently you can’t just make any of Bulgarian a king, instead having a adopt a minor Royal from another country, but anyway …) King Boris might only be a Nazi ally by necessity, but the government he appointed are full-blown supporters. And when the Jewish Question arises, something has to give.
Of course, we’re not here to judge this play on the plot – that was set 75 years ago. It how the performers tell this that matters, and that is done superbly. Apart from their adherence of the golden rule that history is not there for you to re-interpret at your own convenience, the ensemble of five proceeds through the story is a clear, accessible, and sometime entertaining way. You can go into this play without knowing a thing about the power-struggles with Nazi satellite Bulgaria (I certainly didn’t) and still have a good idea of what was going on. The most poignant moment, however, is the triumph where the King saves the Jews of Bulgaria, but at a heavy price. The mixture of self-justification and guilt is a sight to see. Do you accept his reasons? You decide.
And to top it all off, Out of the Forest Theatre show a level of self-awareness I see so rarely I thought it was been made illegal. They, too, are picking and choosing what history to tell – of course they are, how else are you supposed to tell six years of a nation’s history in one hour? – and they acknowledge this. But if they’re guarding themselves against charges of re-writing history, they needn’t have done. There is no trace at all of favouritism, and sign of an agenda, just a drive to tell history as it is in all its chaotic glory, and they do it so well. A lot of people could learn a lot from this ensemble.
And the festival itself …
Since there’s been such a long hiatus between festival and roundup, now is a good time to look at what happens from here. There’s scarcely any festivals going into 2021 with a Covid legacy to content with, and the Vault is no exception.
The immediate question: how is the Vault Festival going to manage in 2021? It now looks like social distancing will be on the way out by the time the spring/summer fringes are upon us, it looks unlikely before March. Especially a challenge for something underground in smallish spaces. How will the Vault cope?
I checked the web page and saw the answer: they’re not. Not entirely unexpected, but less expected was when the announcement was made: late July. Whilst I can understand why they’d decide working under Tier 2 conditions isn’t viable, it did surprise me that they threw in the towel that early, that easily. It’s quite a contrast between this and the Brighton Fringe venues that were determined to go ahead however they could. I’m not saying they should have followed suit with The Warren – heck, the huge gamble they took for their outdoor venue, whilst respectable, isn’t something I’d expect anyone to repeat. But who knows, maybe they could have taken more of an attitude of “What can we do?” rather than “What can’t we do?”
However, the Vault isn’t disappearing entirely over 2021 – they do seems to want to do something. I do have some inside info of what this might be, but I’m keeping this to myself for now. They may end up with an output similar to a commitment to a reduced-size festival – let’s see what they come up with.
There is a bigger development though: they are advertising for a new Executive Director and Artistic Director. Mat Burt and Andy George who run the festival now go by title of “founders”, so whilst they may not be stepping down, they certainly are stepping back. So the big question is what will the successful applicants do? Unlike the open fringes, where the programme is entirely in the hands of the participants, these people could wield a massive amount of power – if they want to. Big if. So expect little cultural impact from Vault next year – but the year after, all bets are off.