Transform Theatre Festival 2015 – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse

transform theatre

Transform Theatre Festival – Review

West Yorkshire Playhouse, May 2015

by Barney Bardsley

Something special has just taken place at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. The Transform 2015 Theatre Festival. And if it slipped under your radar, do not fret, because the festival is in transition – and this year’s happening, at the start of May, was all about sowing the seeds of what is to come. Hopefully these seeds will grow into bright blooms from all over the world, in 2016 and beyond. And you’ve no excuse to miss it then.

transform festival west yorkshire playhouseWhat exactly is Transform? Started in 2011, the festival is an eclectic mix of performance and music. It takes place in Leeds over a few days in April/May each year, and is hosted by West Yorkshire Playhouse. But it is theatre that breaks the traditional confines of the proscenium arch. It reaches into curious nooks and crannies of buildings and outdoor spaces, as well as the stages and foyer of the Playhouse itself.

With producer Amy Letman at the helm, Transform has a dynamic and youthful cross-cultural profile. In 2013, when the theme was “My Leeds, My City”, she spoke of wanting to make a “high impact, explosive festival”. With the locality of Leeds the focus for experimental, site-specific work.

“Grassroots activism”

Now the festival is taking off into much broader territory. Not just Local but Global. From 2016, Transform becomes an independent organisation. With the Playhouse still the main theatre host, but other venues becoming involved, right across the city. The work on show is not just home-grown, but ambitiously international.

It is fitting that one of the main speakers at Transform 2015 was Lucy Neal. Co-founder of the ground-breaking London International Festival of Theatre back in 1981. Always radical – going into Poland in 1981, as the freedom movement of Solidarity was coming to power. Bringing over the thrilling Katona Jozsef Theatre from communist Hungary, with a seminal production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 1989, just before the Berlin Wall tumbled down. Neal is now focused on grassroots activism. She sets the bar high. For a powerful international and local theatre conversation, to take place in Leeds, via this embryonic new festival.

Among other strong voices raised at Transform 2015 was that of Rose McCarthy from charity City of Sanctuary, which does powerful humanitarian work with refugees and asylum seekers. (West Yorkshire Playhouse is the UK’s first Theatre of Sanctuary, offering support, professional training, and welcome, to people in extremis). Rose asked simply, “Where is our humanity?” And alongside her stood the chair of Leeds City of Sanctuary, herself an asylum seeker, single mother and eloquent speaker on universal human rights. Theatre is not just art, after all. It is the voice of freedom calling.

“Smashing the mirror”

transform festival leeds playhouseSome of the most powerful impressions left by the festival this year were of conversations off-stage. Between people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, all talking of the potential for an international hothouse in the making. Smashing the mirror of comfy, white, middle class theatre, to reveal the wide and fractious world behind it.

As for the on-stage offerings, two pieces shone like beacons. From the UK came Chris Goode and Company, with ‘The End of the World’. A strange and mesmerising mix of image and movement, that accompanied the apocalyptic babblings of Parisian modernist Blaise Cendrars. Cendrars is an artist from the early 1900s, yet still startlingly relevant and arresting.

And from New York City came the voice of musical prodigy Heather Christian. Her embryonic work, ‘Animal Wisdom’ was directed by Playhouse associate director Mark Rosenblatt. This was an astonishing piece of raw emotional autobiography. All channelled through Christian’s tiny elfin form, via a mixture of dialogue and original songs delivered in her inimitable, seductive, Mississippi twang. Just gorgeous.

“Artistic freedoms”

Both these pieces will be back in Transform 2016. Along with a range of international work, all aimed at reminding us that, despite our current xenophobic political climate, the theatre, at least, must persist in breaking down falsely-erected barriers of fear in our minds. To celebrate great art from all over the globe.

As Lucien Bourjeily, Lebanese film and theatre maker put it, eloquently, in his festival address – where he stressed the vital importance of international conventions, to create and support artistic freedoms of all kinds – theatre is, quite simply, “a rehearsal for the revolution”. Transform 2016 – the gauntlet has been thrown down.

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Photos: ©Richard Davenport


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