Arches Theatre Festival - 8-19 April

All the companies have some kind of edge to them, something challenging and courageous.

Article by Gareth K Vile | 01 Apr 2008
Since 2002, The Arches Theatre Festival has been bridging the gap between New Moves' wild physical experimentation and the Edinburgh Fringe - both in the calendar and metaphorically. Originally a celebration of Scottish drama, it now casts its web wider to capture the best cabaret, clowning and choreography from around the world.

As expected from The Arches, The Festival is concerned with theatre at the edges of convention and good taste. With contributions ranging from the popular yet terrifying Al Seed, through New York's confrontational feminist Ann Liv Young to the witty and comprehensive history of modern dance by New Art Club, 2008 straddles the divide between humorous live art and its more aggressive side. If Maureen Strack's Muddclubsolo seems impenetrable and unique, Phil Spencer's Bluey is almost pure stand-up comedy.

Jackie Wylie, arts programmer at the Arches, is clear that this variety isn't the product of a systematic philosophy. "It's actually very subjective, they're just shows that I want to see presented again, shows I think should be given another life because there is something especially exciting and different and provocative about them. We try and put together a programme of work which is new to the Arches audience; shows which haven't had a wide outing in Scotland outside the Edinburgh Fringe."

AFT has space for both international and local performances. The rather wonderful Licence Pending collective takes over one night with their Glaswegian poetry and playfulness: Teatr Novogo Fronta represent the European avant-garde with Dias De Las Noches, both visually stunning and morally bleak.

However, the open-ended approach does not lead to a mere mishmash of styles and unrelated works. By the nature of The Arches' audience and by the virtue of the works' approaches, Jackie can identify a common theme. "The audiences that come to the Arches demand to have their expectations subverted so we want to show them the bravest, riskiest practitioners. All the companies have some kind of edge to them, something challenging and courageous. On a broader level we hope that the shows will invigorate what people think of as 'theatre', the festival is far removed from traditional drama. The companies draw influence from a multiplicity of art forms and employ many creative disciplines including visual art, dance, the experience of being at a music gig and new forms of performance technologies."

If this sounds difficult and intellectual, it reflects only part of the AFT's atmosphere. Wylie suggests that there is a strong social aspect to the ten days of performance. "The scale of the Arches means that there will often be six or seven shows a night with plenty of opportunities to have a drink and relax. A really important part of the festival is the creation of a community that is open to all and informed by those that are seeing the shows, in that moment. There's an excitement about the work and a really engaged but fun energy in the building." The time spent waiting in one of The Arches' many bars can be as exciting and inspiring as the shows themselves.

Of course, The Arches itself has a unique atmosphere, something that the companies will be quick to incorporate. As Wylie points out "Each production, one way or another is especially suited to the Arches. The performance spaces in the building have a particular aesthetic created by the raw brickwork and cavernous underground feel. Because the spaces are used for non-theatre events, clubs, gigs and cinema, they are already charged with many of their own exciting meanings before the show is even put in the space. All the productions will bring something to this particular context and will in turn be enhanced by this environment." This environment has shaped many previous shows, bringing an intensity to even weak acting and poor scripts. The National Review of Live Art, when held here, became a toxic underground of mysterious delight: the frequent productions of Beckett had an unmistakable aura of damnation and doom.

Ultimately, the overall impact of the series of events overwhelms any individual evening. As Wylie rightly concludes, AFT is important and interesting for all the right reasons. "It is the only theatre festival in Scotland, outside the Fringe, which presents risk taking and experimental work where are all the shows are also completely accessible and enjoyable." [Gareth K Vile]
Various prices for individual shows. Festival Pass: £35/25 Day passes: £16/10