And that was that.
When I arrived in Ipswich, eleven days ago, I was keen to find the festival part of Pulse – the spirit of celebration and community. I found it in a few different places along the way: The feeling of connection with the faces I know from London, from work, and from the internet, and the weird way in which we reintroduce ourselves to one another when we’re in an out-of-context location. Then there’s community in the rock solid team of the New Wolsey’s youth theatre, the hardcore of which were watching every single show (those they weren’t performing in anyhow). And I’ve loved discovering Ipswich’s Mr Fabulous, who arrived at lunchtime queer cabaret from Milk Presents in top hat, cane, and Vivienne Westwood coat. Legend.
On leaving Ipswich though, I’m thinking more about identity than community. Festival programming is a complicated thing, and increasingly has to balance work that will push boundaries and blow minds with work that lots of people, y’know, actually want to come and see. Pulse sets itself a further challenge too: that the work will be ‘new’, which it mainly is. That which isn’t new-new is certainly new-ish. But what a gamble it is. Programming shows in a festival that not only haven’t been seen before; they often haven’t actually been finished yet. It’s a wonder that anyone involved can sleep at night.
Of course, the work that Pulse and the New Wolsey do to support work at an early stage of development is invaluable to artists, and to future audiences too, most of whom won’t have a clue of the help and hard cash that has fed into the stuff they’re watching onstage. That is absolutely to be celebrated. Without it, and without other venues and festivals all over the UK doing the same, the cultural landscape would look very different indeed.
But I do wonder if the identity of the festival suffers for it, from a curatorial point of view. Seeing absolutely everything in a festival is a new experience for me (apologies to Spymonkey for skipping out at their interval – I’m f**king knackered), and it has highlighted the extent to which I’m always cherrypicking the parts of a programme that interest me particularly. Left to my own devices, I would probably have booked for Jamal Harewood, Nigel & Louise, Third Angel, Breach, and Ursula Martinez, and ignored the rest. I would have missed the simmering threat of The Going Away Days, and the meta-theatricality of Vincent Gambini, both of which were electrifying, but I’d probably also have been spared a lot of the crap. Scary Shit, Hair Peace and Nel are all works that deserve to be seen… just not by me.
That said, the variety on offer at Pulse is a positive in many ways. Of course it’s healthy that there is something for everyone. But, really, isn’t it important that there is something for everyone at the New Wolsey year-round? Thankfully, there is – it’s got a great programme – but if you’re going to group certain works together in a 10-day festival within that year-round programme, you need to give it a clear identity. To give one example, at lunchtime today, in This Is What Men Do, Nigel Barratt and Louise Mari led a group of community performers in a brutal, searing and emotionally exhausting recital of several thousand years’ worth of male violence. They held microphones, spoke steadily, and ate calmly around a Last Supper-style dinner table, quietly attacking one of the fundamental hierarchies of global society, and bringing at least half their audience to tears. At the other end of the day, the festival was brought to a close with some clowning.
A festival is one of those golden opportunities for theatremakers, and for venue management too. Presenting so much work in such a concentrated time, you can encourage audience members to take a chance on things that they would never normally make a trip out for, were it standing alone in another weeknight schedule. And then I know people who just blanket book everything in some festivals, because they trust the programmers so deeply. They don’t bother reading the brochure, checking the website. Now, I’m hugely thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to spend the last week and a half in Ipswich, and see so much work by so many different artists, but can I describe the quintessential Pulse show to you? Can I f**k. No idea. Can I see the similarities between something like the new Gecko piece, and Some People Talk About Violence by Barrel Organ? Or between The Wardrobe Ensemble and Jamal Harewood? Not really, no. And did I like it all? Definitely not. I loved some of it – properly adored some of it – but those 5 or 6 totally killer experiences got a bit lost in a programme of nearly 50 shows.
Big, multi-artform festivals often ‘badge’ the work in their brochures, don’t they? Like, green means for kids and orange means interactive and blue means something else. There has been an element of that at Pulse this year, with Suitcase Day and Scratch Day and Dance Day, but we’ve seen scratches and dance pieces on other days too, and then it turned out that one of the acts on Suitcase Day wasn’t actually in the Suitcase Prize, and one of the Dance Day pieces barely had any dancing in it, and it all got a bit confusing. Much better, maybe, to say that Pulse is predominantly a festival of works-in-development, or which are at the very beginning of their life. Or to leave that stuff out altogether, present scratch work at the New Wolsey in a different context, and instead bring the intelligent, small-scale works of touring theatre together – things like The Preston Bill, and Woman’s Hour, and The Beanfield, and The Future of Sex – to build Pulse into something that the people of Ipswich (and beyond) will recognise as being not only of a certain politics, but of a certain standard.
It’s slightly harsh of me to say this. Some critics regularly commit this crime – to do a work down because, simply, they wished it was something else – and it’s not escaped me that in having to write something every day during my stay in Ipswich, I’ve inched a little too close to the treadmill life of your average lobotomised reviewer, desperately trying to pull something out of their arse at 9am, before the show schedule kicks off again. Having the freedom to write in a flexible format is a gift for which I am forever grateful, but the option to keep my f**king trap shut is sadly off the table. So, with that in mind, let’s finish on a high, and give a series of shout-outs to the works – many of which mentioned on this blog already – which brought joy into my Pulse experience.
Let’s hear it for Shakti Gomez and the Zebra Cross dance; The Hiccup Project and their teenage friendship; free pizza from Barrel Organ; Ursula Martinez walking naked into the street; Sh!t Theatre fucking with your Kinder Eggs; Breach, and the full body rush of emotion I got before The Beanfield had properly even started. Let’s hear it for the fact that I’m still remembering little clever bits that I’d overlooked in This Is Not A Magic Show, and the relief that someone else volunteered to get naked in a bag with Jamie Wood (the relief). Let’s hear it for Annie Siddons shaking off her walrus, and the millions who died in the making of This Is What Men Do. Let’s hear it for Bill, from Preston. Let’s hear it for Mr Fabulous, from Ipswich.