There are honestly few sights I’ve seen more cheering than the enormous crowds that turned out for the 4 Squares arts festival in Birmingham last weekend. Even if the crazy-long queues for the library meant that I couldn’t get into the building to take a look around myself (don’t worry, I’ll be back), I couldn’t help but feel thrilled to see so many people getting so excited about a library – and more generally, across the city centre, to see so many people actively engaging with the arts. I’ve since been told that an estimated 95,000 people were there this weekend, with well over half of those having made a special journey for the event. It’s not a surprise at all. As Christopher Barron, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, said:
“4 Squares Weekender proved, as if it were needed, the appetite of Birmingham audiences for high quality, spectacular and accessible cultural experiences.”
Just as exciting as the size and scale of this event, though, was its scope. With almost every major arts organisation in the city offering some kind of contribution, it’s little wonder that it attracted crowds every bit as diverse as its performances. The wonderful thing about putting everything together in one place, of course, is that people were encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and try out something new. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a range of arts and audiences manage to be so wholly integrated. Where else but here could you see old men and women, toddlers and teenagers of all races enjoying outdoor opera side-by-side and equally as much? Where else would you find adult men actively volunteering to participate in a ballet demonstration? Where else could you see the disparate stories of a rich-man turned homeless and a bulimic young woman effortlessly combined into a single fairy tale, told straight to the faces of a tiny audience packed into a caravan, decorated simultaneously as both a food bank and an allotment?
Without wittering on any further, then, I’ll give you a quick breakdown of the things that I managed to see – though I’m afraid there was plenty that I didn’t. Obviously I’m hinting here that I’d like the chance to see the rest again – come on, Birmingham!
Friday night was the official festival launch and, having arrived a little early for the press reception in advance of the show, I headed up to Victoria Square to take a look at the huge crane and moveable stage that would form part of the evening’s performance of As the World Tipped. Arriving there, I unexpectedly came across performance that had already started: a brilliant little group called Trio Damba, made up of three members of Birmingham band, The Destroyers, with Louis Robinson at the helm. According to the programme, their musical style is an unusual blend of “genres as diverse as Klezma, Hot Club, Tango, Country and Western and Fraggle Rock”. Later that weekend, I was to see them again with support from additional musicians.
The evening’s main event, As the World Tipped, was a little slow in starting. Sound effects announcing the beginning of the show were started up a good twenty minutes before anything actually happened, and there were other areas of the show that would have benefitted from some cutting down (the list of endangered species, for example, and the drawn-out ending). Yet the action and stunts were faultless and spectacular – this was definitely a way to get things started with a bang, and the crowds loved it.
I started Saturday with a ceilidh. There are few ways I’d rather spend my Saturday afternoons, given the choice. I had one at my wedding recently, and I’m rather of the opinion that mass outdoor dances should be implemented as a regular thing in cities every weekend. The novelty would never wear off, and sedentary arty types like me would all be an awful lot fitter as a result. This was an unusual sort of ceilidh in that it was quite stripped back to ensure that the little ones could get the most out of it. The Burdock Ceilidh Band even invented their own new dance called War and Peace (the abridged version), which seemed to mainly involve pulling silly faces at the people in the line facing your own. Everyone who was there had great fun, whether or not they joined in themselves. After this, I headed out towards the Town Hall to catch a brief ballet show, but with time to spare, I stopped off at the stage in Chamberlain Square to pick up some dance moves from the mac’s Move Me workshop.
Birmingham Royal Ballet Presents…, it transpired, was less a ballet performance and more an insight into the rehearsal process and how a ballet production is put together, run by Assistant Director Marion Tait, Ballerina Callie Roberts and Pianist Matthew Drury. Callie is currently preparing to play the wicked fairy Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty, which will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 8-12th October. Members of the audience were asked to stand in for the King, Queen and Catalabutte, the master-of-ceremonies who forgets to invite Carabosse. It was really fascinating to get a glimpse into this process, to see that even the most accomplished of performers have lots to learn before they get up in front of an audience.
After this, I headed back to Centenary Square for the Secret Drama at 2pm, with enough time to catch a little of three different performances. At the Musical Picnic, Louis Robinson and Friends finished off a set, while over towards the Paradise Forum, colourfully costumed dancers showed off their moves in the Hooray for Bollywood! show. Meanwhile, The Russians Are Coming…. took place in the new library’s open amphitheatre, featuring fantastic Birmingham Opera Company baritone Byron Jackson performing four songs involving personifications of Death, accompanied by Sergey Rybin on piano.
The Secret Drama was a wordless, energetic, five-minute show, announced by a gong right behind me, which almost made me jump out of my skin! The performance involved fire engine ladders, abseiling, a skateboard, a police car and a giant key. What was it about? Well, it wouldn’t be a secret if I told you now, would it?
Following this, the CBSO Cello Ensemble assembled at the Musical Picnic stage to perform Notelets, a family-friendly show that got little ones joining in with familiar songs like “Twinkle Twinkle” and the theme tune from In the Night Garden. Simultaneously, Ex Cathedra entered the amphitheatre for a gorgeous rendition of a series of songs inspired by nature, rounded off with an a capella version of “Singin’ in the Rain” – fortunately not actually in the rain. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find the promised CBSO Wind Ensemble, but there was more than enough to keep me occupied until I went off to queue up for my first Eat! experience.
Eat! is a series of four intimate, 15-minute dramas, performed inside gutted and redecorated caravans to tiny audiences of 15. Each vignette is based on true stories gathered from interviews and online conversations with local people conducted in advance by the REP. Naturally, the caravans filled up quickly, so to be in with a chance of seeing any of the shows, one had to arrive a good quarter of an hour or so before the start. The first I saw remained my favourite of them all. This was the show I mention above, telling the stories of a fairy tale princess who lived with a wise old man (or an overweight teenager who lived with her grandfather), and a knight in shining armour who became bewitched by a magic potion (or a rich, smart-suited guy who became an alcoholic after being left by his wife).
Sunday kicked off with a journey to the East through musical storytelling from Michael Loader at the musical picnic stand, enjoyed by children and grown-ups alike. This was followed by Metropolitan Brass, a brass-five piece who played familiar, family-friendly tunes including the themes from The Simpsons, Harry Potter and The Pink Panther.
My second Eat! experience, also in Centenary Square, was much more lively and upbeat than the first. This caravan combined singing, beatboxing and heightened theatricals to run through a series of food-related snapshots, rather than one or two full stories. To fit with the show’s “theatre” theme, the inside was decorated in rich red and gold colours, with heavy curtains surrounded by an ornate arch. I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to all these beautiful sets now that it’s all over – I hope that the company at least get to extend their tour.
After this, I aimed for the Victoria Square Eat! show, but failed to make it on time, so I headed over to Oozells Square to check out Clayground Collective‘s giant clay city and the other Eat! show. Before I’d gone very far, however, I encountered a crowd in the middle of the ICC, surrounding a band which turned out to be the energetic and experimental Perhaps Contraption. The volume level in the corridor soon led to a collective decision to take the show outside, and I followed them out to listen to a couple of songs.
Conscious of time however, I wasn’t able to stick around for too long if I wanted to catch the next caravan perfomance, so I pressed on, arriving with just enough time to listen to a rendition of Jessie J’s “Money” by the Occasional Brass Band just outside the square.
The Clayground Collective activity was something beautiful to see, with hordes of children gathered round to unleash their creativity. The “war” themed Eat! production was beautiful too, but in a very different, much more poignant way. The show told a haunting wartime tale of suffering, starvation and survival against the odds, inside a caravan kitted-out with seats made of books and walls plastered with printed pages. “There are friends, and there is food,” the story began, “but food is your best friend.” This caravan, too, suggested one possible answer to the question of what would happen to the sets next – it would be lovely to see this bookish set as a permanent installation in or around the new library….
Back in Centenary Square, the CBSO String Quartet were due to start at the same time – and in the same place, it turned out – as a repeat of the Birmingham Opera Company‘s performance from the day before. Unable to find the string quartet, I caught a little of the CBSO Cello Ensemble and The Russians Are Coming… before settling down at the musical picnic to listen to Soweto Kinch‘s bizarre blend of jazz and hip hop. Soweto free-styled impressively, using words thrown at him by the audience to go with each of the letter in “music”. The “i” was for “intellectual”, and with all the wit and Latin words being rattled off here, it seemed apt enough. Soweto Kinch will be performing his show, The Legend of Mike Smith at the Birmingham REP from 12-28 September – I’m definitely going to try to catch it there!
Before seeing the final Eat! production in Victoria Square, there was time at this point to enjoy some impressive circus skills displays from NoFit State, and some soul and motown classics from the Brothers of Soul and Divas of Soul in The Magic of Old Skool Classics.
The final Eat! show followed a wedding theme, telling the story of a woman who “live[d] to eat“, and describing the food at her weddings to multiple husbands from around the world. Despite her larger-than-life cheeriness, however, there was a subtle, half-hidden sadness in the tale: our protagonist, we learn, is a recovered anorexic, with a secret sense of loss clouding her past.
Last but not least was Tippa Irie, reggae legend taking over the Simmer Down stage outside the Town Hall. A troop of loyal supporters swarmed round for his set, willing to stick it out even when the heavens opened above them.
4 Squares Weekender, I think, perfectly represented the West Midlands at it’s best, and perhaps for the first time, I felt truly proud to be a part of it. As Peter Knott, Director of Arts Council England, put it:
“4 Squares Weekender was an iconic opportunity for Birmingham to welcome visitors and locals alike, showing off the world class cultural offer in the City and heralding a new way of working which places the Library at the heart of this community.”
Suddenly, it seems like a thoroughly exciting time to be in Birmingham and the surrounding area, and I join with Christopher Barron in hoping that “the launch of the new Library, the re-opening of The REP and 4 Squares Weekender are not the end of the story.”