The Feast of Fools - Brighton Early Music Festival in Shoreham
REVIEW By Richard Amey
‘The Feast of Fools’: the closing Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) production’s extra performance at St Mary de Haura, Shoreham, Saturday 4 January 2020. Saskia Wesnigk-Wood director, Leah Stuttart musical director, JP Omari choreographer; Natalie Rowland, lighting.
Leah Stuttart, 15th Century harp; Ian Harrison, voice, winds, percussion; Gesine Bänfer, winds, guitar; Jeremy Avis, voice, education lead; Andrew Robinson, voice and (ringmaster) director of BREMF Community Choir and children from Westdene and Goldstone Primary Schools; Deborah Roberts, voice and director of BREMF Consort of Voices. Miranda Mufena, Child Bishop; Ian Denyer, The Verger; Barbara Wood, Woman with the Drum.
“There is no planet B” . . . “Rise up before the sea” . . . “Resist to exist” . . . “What I stand for is what I stand on” . . . . . . “Be the change you want to see” . . . “Choose Eco, not Ego” . . . “Hey mate, let’s talk cliMate” . . . “Protect the next world and all in it” . . .
What voices are these? They are the placards of schoolchildren.
“Wildlife is being exterminated by what we call the progress of civilisation” . . . “The earth’s continued survival rests in our hands” . . .
What voices are these on their white banners? Gerald Durrell’s in 1961 and David Attenborough’s in 1984.
Shawms wail. Voices chant. Extinction Rebellion, adopts medieval dress. Parliaments targeted today, instead of Diocesan Committees then. A ringmaster orchestrates the protest. The children play ball with globes while a bell tolls. Bagpipes drone, a guitar strums. Disrupted are the imbedded Gregorian chants and mechanical liturgies of the regular church office. The rug pulled out from beneath.
Brilliant. Cleverly logical. This up-to-the moment take on the medieval Feast of Fools – or The Feast of the Ass – was the idea of BREMF artistic director Deborah Roberts. The full initial impetus and mission to reinvent this unbuttoned ancient celebration of role reversal was Leah Stuttart’s. And Saskia Wesnigk-Wood ignited the production of a show with a shudderingly burning and surely enduring relevance.
Then and again now, passion is pinpointed into challenging the established order. The Feasting of Fools (think modern Arrogant Asses) – with updated medieval riotous good humour, a grinning popular calling to book of routine religious practice (read modern business as usual) safe in the knowledge that their clergy will be back in control tomorrow, just possibly examining themselves a trifle. For a moment, perhaps, then reverting to type, so it can all be safely repeated next year. For cloistered authority read blinkered governments.
‘Metamorphosis’ is the theme of 2019 BREMF. This event closes it on the historically authentic Feast of Fools around Twelfth Night. But to honour that theme of transformation, any re-enactment in homage to the traditional upending of the church’s ways by the salutary and symbolic take-over of its roles by the suppressed children and youth of the day needs to demonstrate fresh dimension.
For take-over now read hi-jack. A black female bishop in the pulpit delivers the pithiest of cleaving sermons. “Are we all Fools? Do we feel like the Donkey? Or like the Hummingbird? Do not give up – but get up and care.” A metamorphosis that ticks many boxes. Greta Thunberg suitablly elevated into high office.
A harpist strikes up, even louder than before: a celestial minstrel switched into secular overdrive, swaying and lunging, strings distorting and twanging, sometimes like a sitar. We wonder: might sozzled revellers this early in time have enacted ‘air harp’ at wedding and other celebrations?
As proceedings lurch and swing towards their carousing conclusion, shawms and tabor unfettered, a trio of men’s voices including the ringmaster assemble a second time. Further the worse for nectar, in a pitch-dubious 15th Century rendition, topped with brightly coloured hats designed as fish, they bawl and croon. In most of the protesting music, the Latin is cod, and the texts hybridised by Wesnigk-Wood, abetted by Maya Davis and Jeremy Avis, into voicing Autumn 2019 issues.
Earlier proceedings have inducted a version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the children’s anthem calling out the authority over them. Now they yell at their future-sabotagers, their own adults, who as the two choirs, acknowledge that the obligation to change is theirs.
The church nave was overweight with audience astride the aisle like two plastic-bloated beached whales, while the chancel at times burst with around 60 performers. No space for any meaningful choreography, although the Hip Hop could have impacted and broadened the clamour around this universal message with its embittered undercurrent.
BREMF’s unique and welcome Feast of Fools surely has topicality legs. It says what the people are saying with strength and subtlety in turns. Performing logistics likely rule out anything as idealistic as a national tour. Although, is it not already globally applicable? Yet could it be something televised or YouTubed? Will anyone harness this?
Upcoming non-festival BREMF events –
Opera: Marci Da Gagliano’s ‘La Dafne’ of 1608 at The Old Market Hove on February 8 & 9 (7.30pm). Cocky Apollo is romantically thwarted in another naughty gods gallavant, featuring a top cast of artistes, some already seasoned BREMF returners. Go and cheer Dafne on.
Choral: Grand Renaissance on European Early Music Day at St Martin’s Church, Brighton, on March 21 (7.30pm). BREMF Consort of Voices with The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble; director Deborah Roberts. Multi-part items from the Scot, Robert Carver, and movements from Brumel’s Earthquake Mass. Watch the Richter scale react.
(BREMF 2020: Theme: Earth. October 23 – November 8)