Transform festival review – theatre radicals take over the streets | Stage

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At their best, urban theatre festivals can make you look at familiar streets through new eyes. Transform, with its scattering of performances across Leeds, has always been good at that. From its origins as an offshoot of the Leeds Playhouse programme, it has grown into a fully-fledged international festival with offerings from China and Brazil to Italy. In many ways, 2019 is its most ambitious instalment to date.

My visit to this year’s festival begins in a city centre square, with me staring into the glowing rectangle of my phone. Rewire Leeds, by German immersive theatre-makers machina eX, takes place both on digital devices and across the city. Each audience member is cast as an employee of the eponymous surveillance agency, and is sent out to observe and report on their surroundings by a series of shadowy clients. Communicating by text, we are rated on our performance while also trying to solve the bigger puzzle of who is behind all this monitoring.

The game generates an unnerving paranoia, blurring the line between fiction and reality. The anxiety of both watching and being watched – feeling conspicuous while suspiciously eyeing passersby – is at once thrilling and uncomfortable. As well as questioning the ethics of surveillance, the experience invites reflection on corporations’ use of data, the atomisation and exploitation of casualised work, and how we look at and judge the people with whom we share our streets. But after all the suspense – and all the walking – the final destination is oddly unsatisfying.

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If Rewire Leeds asks us to game the system, other events try to smash it. One of Transform’s new initiatives this year is Future Radicals, a collective of local 16- to 21-year-olds staging performances and interventions throughout the festival. One afternoon, they set up camp in a shopping centre, responding to questions from the public and discussing the experience of being young today. In a society in which young people are often sidelined yet are increasingly willing to fight for their future (as seen in the ongoing school strikes), it is a welcome forum for debate.

coletivA ocupação.

Shoulder to shoulder with the audience … coletivA ocupação.

While Future Radicals discuss resistance to the status quo, coletivA ocupação enact it. When It Breaks It Burns is a retelling and re-creation of the 2015 and 2016 school occupations in Brazil, performed by the student activists involved. Erasing any distance between performance and audience, they take us right inside the chaos and the fear and thrill of the occupation. Forget in-yer-face theatre – these performers are face to face and shoulder to shoulder with the audience, moving among us, nudging us aside, and eventually snatching the chairs out from under us.

Movement does most of the talking, eloquently conveying the bodily experience of protest. Surrendering hands on heads become defiant raised fists. Arms link in solidarity. Laughter is suddenly halted by a hand in the shape of a police officer’s gun. And dance itself, in all its expressive joy, becomes a sort of resistance. It is reminiscent of Emma Goldman’s famous statement: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”. Here, dance is revolution, pushing back against the austerity and repression of the state.

My festival experience ends back on the streets, as performers and audience all spill out through the doors and shout into the night. This time, though, we’re seizing space rather than policing it. And, yet again, Transform has changed the way audiences experience Leeds – even if just for the fleeting duration of a performance.



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