Fierce International Performance Festival
urban75 visits the arts festival in Birmingham, May 20 - June 5, 2005.
Report and photos © Mike Slocombe
With something of a provocative reputation, Fierce has been running an annual performance arts festival in the heart of Birmingham since 1998.
Starting life as a small dozen-event show seven years ago, the arts festival has transmogrified into a major cultural gig, with last year's show offering 48 events watched by over 60,000 excited, amused and possibly baffled punters.
The Fierce Festival 2005 was billed as a festival of art that "runs the gamut from high camp cabaret to visceral performance pieces and from solo shows on an empty stage to massed singing and dancing in the streets ...sometimes shocking, often unpredictable, but always spectacular results."
That sounded good to us, so we headed up to Brum for a weekend of art, cabaret, performance and, of course drinking.
Soon to be redeveloped into some ghastly lifestyle apartments or another, the Rotunda is one of Birmingham's most famous landmarks.
With the decline of the traditional Midlands heavy industry, Birmingham slumped into recession in the seventies, to be reborn in the 1990s as a shopping mecca.
The Rotunda now stands in a sea of multinational, uber-brand 'flagship' stores, with the streets resonating to a cash till rumba of "CONSUME! CONSUME!"
Serenely floating some 30m above the credit card calypso below was Belgian artist, Benjamin Verdonck, housed in a giant sized swallow's nest stuck halfway up the Rotunda. We liked him.
To the baffled stares of passers by, Verdonck would emerge from long periods of scrabbling about in his nest to poke his head out at the crowd before disappearing into the darkness of his elevated hiding place.
Occasionally, great clumps of straw would float down from his elevated perch, to be dutifully bagged up by a tireless road sweeper.
This was street theatre at its finest, stopping shoppers in their tracks and maybe - just maybe - making them stop thinking about rampant consumerism for a moment.
Simultaneously performed in three locations - Birmingham's mailbox, London and Colchester - the production of Live From Paradise was created by actors interacting with live video streams.
The three separate performances were merged together to form a continuous narrative, combining real life with displaced characters brought to life over the Internet.
The piece employed nine actors across three locations playing just six characters, with each venue reflecting an obsession of the principal characters (are you still with me, here?)
It actually wasn't as complicated as it sounds and for the greater part was an interesting experiment with some clever interplay between the real and virtual characters.
Sadly, lengthy technical delays at the beginning meant that the play seemed to drag on for too long by the end, cutting into precious ale time.
File under 'interesting but not quite there yet'.
The highlight of our weekend was the C'est Birmingham show put on by Club Duckie at the Birmingham Hippodrome.
We were escorted into a dimly lit circular room, with strips of tinsel running all around the high walls.
The room was filled with large round tables, each seating ten members of the audience. A low, dim round lampshade spilled red light on to the table while we were served £10 bottles of 'champagne' and offered free cigars.
Here's our host, kindly offering a light.
Right on cue, the low table lights all shot up to the ceiling and a stage suddenly opened up amongst the tinsel.
We were greeted by the sight of what looked like four cocktail tables which promptly broke in to a dance routine to the lounge music purr of 'C'est Birmingham'. Fantastic stuff!
After the cabaret performance, our table was given a pile of 'Duckie dollars' and shown a menu detailing the various acts we could 'buy' to perform on our table.
As soon as an act was due to arrive, a spot light would appear on our table, with an assistant wheeling in a set of speakers to accompany the act. Very slick.
First off was the farting bathtub, with polystyrene 'bubbles' flying up in the air in time to the music.
For a mere eight Duckie dollars we were treated to the 'Japanese housewife' who was, frankly, completely bonkers.
This was a treat to watch, with audience members instructed to frantically jump up and down on a pump on their seats until their balloon burst.
Once the audience were safely covered up in waterproof cagoules, the performer indulged in an act of flamboyant masturbation on an over-sized cock. As you can see, the climax was very impressive. And very funny.
It's a bit hard to know where to start with this act, which involved a contortionist dancer lying on her back on our table and then personally handing out nachos with her feet.
A sauce dip was thoughtfully provided in a convenient location.
In a mutant, surreal karaoke moment, we were sung to by a Japanese lady squirting water at us while we sheltered under see-through umbrellas.
The more I try to describe what we saw, the madder it seems, but you'll have to take my word that it was one, long joyous, original, glorious and glamorous event from start to finish, full of surprises and laughs.
Here, a dancer performs the Can-Can with a Barbie doll on her knickers.
A performer knocks out rude balloons with effortless ease.
A northern rap played on a tuba? Hell, why not!
Our smooth-talking host endeavoured to sell us a trolleyload of souvenir tack.
On the main stage, several oddball, funny and sassy dance routines entertained the crowd.
The show's climax! We loved it - easily one of the best cabarets we've ever seen - and left with broad grins on our faces. Respect to the Duckie crew!
Old enamel Hippodrome sign.
Nursing substantial hangovers the next day, we checked out the Great Swallow's nest and discovered that it had laid an egg!
Clearly unhappy to see his egg out of his nest, Verdonck made mournful noises from his lofty perch.
A last look at the crowds gathered underneath the Great Swallow performance. We would have loved to stay around to see what was going to develop, but we had a London-bound train to catch.
Although we only to got to see a glimpse of the full cultural feast offered by the Fierce Festival, we loved our time in Brum.
Highly recommended. See you there next year!