A WEEKEND of pioneering theatre is aimed at putting Berwick firmly on the map as a place for extraordinary live arts events.
And for anyone in any doubt as to where Berwick sits on the map of the British Isles, the jolly poster proclaiming The Great Berwick SideShow helpfully points out that Newcastle is 63 miles to the south and Edinburgh 56 miles to the north.
During this very special weekend you will see the gun pits on Berwick’s spectacular Elizabethan ramparts become the venue for music and dance on Saturday night.
But the festival begins tomorrow with a piece called Figures Half Unreal, which has so many things to commend it that it’s worth listing them.
Firstly, it was inspired by the extraordinary life of the artist LS Lowry, who used to visit Berwick, along with other places along the North East coast.
It doesn’t matter how much has been written or revealed about this enigmatic man, there always seems to be something else worth saying.
Secondly, it takes place in a building wreathed in Berwick history.
It is the three-storey Penny Lodging House near The Maltings arts centre – “a doss house”, says Maltings artistic director Miles Gregory bluntly – which has been lifted out of a state of near-dereliction for these performances by Brass Bastion, a local theatre company which specialises in so-called site-specific productions.
And thirdly, Dr Gregory, who has lifted The Maltings out of the doldrums since his appointment in 2008, attended a rehearsal on Monday night and was bowled over.
As producer, you could understand it if his enthusiasm was tinged with relief. But there was none of that yesterday, although he stressed that this foray into “immersive theatre” is a first for Berwick.
“A lot of people won’t have experienced anything like this before,” he said. “Some of them might not know what to make of it.”
It works like this: you buy a ticket which gains you access to the building, which has been decorated so as to take you into the imagined world of LS Lowry.
Inside are 12 actors, in costume, who will perform various scenes, maybe involving audience members on occasion. You can wander at will, watching the various scenes and episodes in whatever order you please.
You can stay inside as long as you like but the building can only hold 28 audience members at a time. As one person comes out, another can go in – “a bit like a nightclub”, suggested Miles.
He offered a few tantalising snapshots of his experiences on Monday night: “At one point there was a woman crying on a beach in front of a burial mound. Then there was an old man who passed me carrying a cloak, which he handed to me and asked me to take to the old woman.
“There were figures silhouetted against parts of the building which looked like Lowry figures. And there was also a room full of books, all open at certain pages. I spent a long time looking at those.”
Miles said that after the performance he popped to the pub with two friends who had also seen it. “We spent about an hour and a half talking about it and found we’d all seen different things.
“The piece has been very heavily researched by Chris Green (artistic director of Brass Bastion and formerly of Berwick Museum) so there is a coherent narrative there. It’s up to you how you follow it.”
Miles said the work touched on some of the darker, less well-known aspects of Lowry’s life.
Famous for his stick figures, part of the inspiration for Figures Half Unreal was the recurring image of a ballerina you will find in some of Lowry’s paintings.
The Penny Lodging House, which since its doss house days has been used for storage, is part of Berwick’s Georgian legacy. Miles said the owners, who wished to remain anonymous, handed it over to The Maltings to use as an alternative venue. Essential maintenance work having made the building safe for public use, it has been brought into a new era at a time when Miles Gregory and his staff are keen to realise their ambitions for the town. A new dance performance piece is scheduled for the venue later in the year.
An added attraction of the new venue, although not an official one, is the chance to see real graffiti dating back as far as the 1840s. The SideShow festival, of which the Lowry production is a part, is being presented as a pilot in anticipation of an even more ambitious event next year.
It has been put together, said Miles, “on a shoestring” but with the invaluable support of Northumberland County Council, English Heritage and the Arts Council, which funded Berwick-based installation artists Zoë Walker and Neil Bromwich to become involved.
EVENT AT BERWICK’S GEORGIAN BARRACKS
THE SideShow festival’s headline event begins at 6.30pm on Saturday at Berwick’s Georgian Barracks, where you will be greeted by dancers and an inflatable red cannon – possibly the oddest thing ever to sit in the centre of the parade ground.
This is The Love Cannon, a creation of renowned Berwick artists Walker & Bromwich. Along with a 30-piece samba band, it will feature in a parade to the Windmill Bastion, where audience members will be invited to write “messages of peace and love” to be fired from the cannon.
People will make their way down to the tunnels leading to the two gun pits, where they will split into two groups. One group will see Dancing Borders – a performance devised by Walker & Bromwich and Warwickshire-based Mobius Dance Theatre and involving local volunteers – while the other group will be entertained by ukelele band The Mockingbirds. Then the two groups will change places.
The gun pits, which have never been used in this way before, will be decorated with lights and have a licensed bar.
A night to remember is definitely on the cards.
Tickets for Figures Half Unreal, which runs from tomorrow until Saturday, and the Saturday night festival, are on sale at The Maltings box office. Call 01289 330 999.
A lot of people won’t have experienced anything like this before. Some of them might not know what to make of it