At last! My reviews backlog is under one month long, and this means I can turn my attention to the one non-theatre event I cover every two years, and that’s the legendary Lumiere. Back for its fourth biannual appearance, it’s once again been every bit the popular event it was expected to be.
This year, I was in the fortunate position of holding a gold card pass with possibly the most piss-poor claim to be “an employee of a city centre business”. So I had a perfect chance to get a good look at most things several times over the four days. It’s now nearly a month later and attention’s turned to that ghastly thing at the end of this month, but let’s have a look back at the festival and give my thoughts on it. Continue reading
This will mean nothing to everyone who follows this blog outside the north-east, but us Durham folk cannot possibly have missed the fact that the Lumiere festival of light is coming next week from Thursday and Sunday. I very rarely cover arts over than theatre on this blog, but as a Durham local, Lumiere is my one annual exception.
Lumiere is the brain-child of Artichoke, who manage lots of arts festivals including a lot of light-related ones. Prior to the first Lumiere in 2009, they organised a chain of beacons along Hadrian’s Wall, which I missed but heard a lot of good things about; and Viking-themed Odin’s glow in Newton-under-Roseberry and local landmark Roseberry Topping (not far from the Saltburn where I grew up), which I saw and was excellent.
But it’s the festival in Durham that has had the most enduring popularity, now back for its fourth biannual visit. So successful is Lumiere that Artichoke has even exported the format to Derry/Londonderry in 2013 (their capital of culture next year) and London proper in 2016. But, thanks to some very vigorous campaigning to keep arts council funding, Lumiere remains synonymous with Durham.
I’ll be reporting on Lumiere after the festival when I’ve seen things for myself, but here’s a preview of what I recommend we look out for. Continue reading
The promenade performance of The House of Usher at The Empty Shop could easily have been a disaster. And yet, against these expectations, it came off rather well.
Blog regulars may have noticed I review very few student productions. When I’ve seen good student theatre, it’s been outstanding, but that’s a minority. Okay, I’m a strict marker, I don’t make allowances for not being amateurs, and at festival fringes I expect student theatre to compete with the professionals – but the fact remains that the good pieces of student theatre I see are considerably outnumbered by the mediocre, unfunny and horribly pretentious ones. So the only reason I went to see The House of Usher was curiosity. Ever since The Empty Shop got its souped up license in 2012, it’s hosted a few plays, a lot of it the overspill from the student Assembly Rooms. But so far, they’ve all used a single room as a performance space. With this one using the whole building, I thought I’d check this out.
Had this idea simply been pitched to me, I would have been sceptical. Devised theatre is hard. Student productions very easily get out of their depth. They are usually guaranteed a large appreciative audience from all their friends, but local enthusiasm can be a bad thing. As for a promenade performance as complicated as this one – going straight into the venue without an practice runs with a practice audience is extremely risky. On the whole, there’s so many things waiting to go wrong, the odds were stacked against them. And they, this lot have defied the odds, and put on a very ambitious play that, whilst not perfect, comes off rather well.
Fusion by Mick Stephenson, a Durham artist, commissioned for Lumiere. But sadly, this is the exception rather than the rule.
COMMENT: Durham is great for high-profile festivals but poor at supporting local talent. With a welcome funding boost coming, now is the chance to change.
Durham city has built up a good reputation for arts festivals. Underway is the popular annual Book Festival, with big names from all over the country. Earlier this year were Brass and The Streets, and next year the hugely successful Lumiere will return to Durham. The future of these festivals was in doubt, because they were heavily dependent on arts council national portfolio funding. But fears were quelled when funding was actually increased at a time when overall national funding is being cut.
So what’s not to like? Well, at the risk of being a party pooper, at the time the funding was announced, I pointed out that funding in the north-east is still vastly weighted towards Tyne and Wear, with over 80% of the funding going to a county with only 40% of the population. That raised the question of how much north-east talent is going to waste – a complicated issue that I will return to another day. But before we can solve that problem, I think there is another problem that needs addressing first, which is that there is next to no support for local artists with the funding that County Durham already gets. This is a pattern I’ve observed throughout the county council, city council (when it existed), arts organisations and funding bodies – they may even be doing more harm than good for the local talent.
The thing about Durham’s arts scene is that its support is almost entirely directed at its big festivals. And the big festivals almost entirely draw in their artists from outside the county: usually outside the north, often London, frequently international. That’s great if you’re trying to create a world-class international festival, and it’s great for the people of Durham to have these on their doorstep, but it’s hopeless if you’re trying to do something creative yourself. And then comes the really bitter pill. On virtually every occasion that a north-east artist is commissioned for a high-profile event in Durham – it won’t be Durham artist. It’s almost always someone from Newcastle. Even when it’s writing about events in County Durham. It almost feels like County Durham arts is more Newcastle-centric than Newcastle itself.
I’m interrupting my Edinburgh Fringe coverage for one quick bit of news back in Durham. It’s been expected for a months or so ever since Durham County Council got its dream Arts Council national portfolio grant, but it’s just been confirmed now: Lumiere is coming back to Durham next year. Ever since 2013, Durham County Council was hinting in the strongest possible terms that this is what they wanted to do if only they got the money.
Still lots of questions up in the air. Probably the most pertinent one is: what’s happening to all the extra money that Durham County Council gets? I have some thoughts about that, but they can wait for another day. But today is a champagne moment. It’s good to have you back.
So, Lumiere 2013 has drawn to a close. (Yes, I know this is rather late, but since mid-November I’ve been either busy or asleep. Here is my excuse.) And it’s not a theatre event so isn’t really in the scope of this blog, but as it’s Durham’s biggest and most high-profile arts event by far, it’s getting a review anyway.
So, as I’ve already said, I’ve been quite impressed with this year’s Lumiere. The line-up I think has been the best one ever, the crowd control measures broadly went to plan, and the numbers say it’s been more popular than ever. This has also been the reaction of most people I’ve spoken to. However, there were a few things that I and other missed from earlier festivals – possibly a side-effect of the crowd control, but nonetheless something missing. Anyway, I’ll get on to the later. Let’s start with …
Pick of the festival
This is a tough one, because there were so many different installations I liked, so I’m going to have to get picky. But no pick of Lumiere 2013 would be complete without Crown of Light (pictured above). That goes without saying; I hardly need state why. But in case you’re asking, it’s outstanding because it’s an excellent yet very simple idea of projecting images on the Lindisfarne Gospels on the walls of Durham Cathedral. But far from it being an easy thing anyone could have done if they’d thought of it, it took a lot of thought and skill, some very cunning projector arrangement to miss the trees, and some excellent choices of music to create the right atmosphere. And we get something that any artist dreams of, a centrepiece to a festival, hugely popular with the people who come to see it – and, what’s more, it’s something that is clearly associated with Durham that isn’t the usual stereotypes that dominate “local” art and and theatre. Need I go on? Continue reading
Excuse the brief post, but it’s past midnight and I’m too busy to keep up with reviews right now. However, here is a quick newsflash to say that I have now been through installations 1 to 16 tonight (in numerical order like the obsessive compulsive I am) and I’m minded to say this is the best line-up they have done since they started in 2009.
So if you haven’t been yet, I cannot recommend this highly enough. You have until Sunday. The crowd control measures seem to be working so far, so there’s little chance of a repeat of last year’s crush if that worry has been keeping you away. I’ll write a bigger article in due course picking out highlights, but in the meantime I’d day the thing you absolutely must catch is [M]ondes in Durham Cathedral. Remember, you need a ticket to get into the city centre (including the Cathedral) before 7.30, but it is unticketed afterwards. And it looks like the weather’s going to be kind. So come and see it, and you’ll be thankful you did.
UPDATE: (Sat morning): Perhaps I spoke a little too soon about the crowds. A lot more people on Friday night, and at 9 p.m. people were queuing for 20 minutes to get into the city centre. Tonight’s going to be the tough one. We’ll see.