Together – Performance review in Barnstaple, UK.
This review was written by Rosanna Rothery from the North Devon Journal, published June 17th, 2016.
Softly in my ear, her voice directs me into Butchers Row. She tells me to pause and listen to its hustle and bustle, smell its distinctive pungent odours and look anew at its arched shop fronts. Lyrical words and music flow into my headphones. It’s strangely calming, a little mysterious. I’m on an adventure. I’m excited. I’m looking at Barnstaple in a fresh way – it suddenly feels as if I am in this town for the first time.
The melodious female voice coos softly in my ear. She directs me through a little gateway and down a hidden passageway. There is something she wants me to see. She instructs me to look into the window of a home. I feel slightly naughty to be a voyeur yet, I freely admit, it appeals to my nosy side.
In the window, I witness a scene that is both moving and intimate – no, I’m not going to tell you what it is, I won’t spoil it for you. There’s another surprise, too. Something is hidden somewhere nearby. I won’t tell you where – but it’s certainly playful fun, following the instructions and finding it.
The voice gives me a sudden warning. Someone might be watching me. I turn around quickly. Did I see someone duck down behind a hedge? There are other people watching me too. Are they just curious bystanders, wondering why a strange woman is grabbling around in other people’s flower beds? Are they, in fact, actors in this rather unusual “play”? I really don’t know – the intrigue is part of the excitement and playful fun.
So what the heck am I doing? Well I’m enjoying a taster of a unique theatre experience you can have at this year’s Fringe TheatreFest. The performance piece, called Together, is a play unlike any other play.
The idea behind it is that, via headphones, a voice directs you and three other participants around Barnstaple – you all go separate ways but you’ll interact at some point. The hope is that you’ll see the town in a new light, experience it without your usual agenda and engage with it in a fun, playful way.
On the way you might be directed to do all kind of things – some of them, I warn you, might be somewhat out of character. You’ll meet interesting characters. You could even find yourself in familiar places or pubs, experiencing them – and possibly yourself – in a new light.
On this occasion, because I was having a taster of this innovative promenade-style theatre show, my own adventure ended at the West Country Cheese shop on Butcher’s Row where I was given a complimentary board of delicious local cheeses. (Now I can’t guarantee this will happen to you on your adventure!).
Afterwards, I sat outside St Anne’s Community Centre and chatted to Roos (full name Rosa Leonie Bekkenkamp) from Amsterdam, who along with fellow members of Almost Humans devised the piece.
I start by telling her that taking part in Together has been like re-discovering a passion for Barnstaple, a place, I confess, I usually take for granted.
“The piece started as a ‘love letter’ to the town, and maybe that’s still an appropriate analogy,” she said. “To me, as an outsider, it’s about falling in love with this town. Perhaps, as a local, it’s about falling in love all over again. I’m afraid I’m a hopeless romantic.”
Roos wanted participants to fully engage with the town so she decided to forgo the traditional concept of a play (with a stage and audience).
“I think when working on a piece about a town, engagement is important,” she said. “You can’t just see images or hear stories about it; you need to smell the air, walk the streets, taste the food and touch the buildings to have actually encountered the place. I hope that participants will enjoy this engagement and power they have over the performance: In the end, they’re the ones making it work!”
Roos also hopes it will be an interesting sensation for participants.
“I like the contrast of the seclusion of the headphones with the openness of the town, and how this isolation actually makes you more aware of what’s around you,” she said.
The idea for the piece began last summer, when Almost Human came to Barnstaple to rehearse a new show for Fringe TheatreFest.
“For the past few years we’ve been hosted by this incredibly kind and inspiring family, and they helped us throughout the week,” said Roos. “At some point they offered to take us around the town, and what we got was a complete locals’ inside guide to Barnstaple. As a bunch of outsiders we felt very drawn in, and it’s this intimacy that struck me. I didn’t walk through the town the same way again after that.”
Inspired by a Rimini Protokoll and National Theatre of Wales show that Roos had experienced in Aberystwyth, she wanted to concoct a similar promenade-style performance in Barnstaple.
“There’s so much history here, sometimes literally buried. But what makes Barnstaple so remarkable to me is its hospitality, there’s an openness to the way the town engages strangers. It’s on the street, in the shops, in the museum: Everything you learn about Barnstaple makes you want to see more of it.”
Now whether you know the town like the back of your hand or whether you are just visiting, Roos thinks that everyone will enjoy participating in Together, including: “Locals who know this town by heart, tourists and visiting artists who want to get a glimpse of this town, adventurers, flâneurs, walkers, people-watchers, and (cheese) lovers.”
The only thing I might add is: if you like surprises, playfulness, fun, wonder and stories, do give it a go.