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Gateshead international festival of theatre – a virtual, virtuoso delight | Stage


“I hope you’re all still there,” says a muffled voice. From under a towel and behind a screen, Icelandic artist Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir presents her show Elision, a contemplation of heat, change and togetherness. At the start of the show, which her audience are live-streaming from home, she considers what it means to watch a piece of theatre with others compared with watching alone. Community is an idea returned to in much of the work over the weekend at Gateshead international festival of theatre. Instead of being cancelled, the festival has been speedily but sturdily reimagined on a digital platform. Sigurdardottir peeks down the live feed: “Maybe we are together in some way.”

Making a theatre festival work solely online requires a heavy dose of trust, ingenuity and imagination. Impressively, all of the artists originally commissioned are still involved in GIFT, offering a variety of adapted, pre-recorded and deliciously low-fi experimental work.

One of the highlights is It Don’t Worry Me. Recorded in January in Barcelona, this is a gloriously silly collaboration between performance duo Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas, and the Catalan theatre company Atresbandes. In a ridiculous search for meaning in art, Lesca and Atresbandes’s Albert Pérez Hidalgo circle each other while offering deadly-serious third-person commentary on microphones. With glee, bare bums and brilliant cameos from their fellow theatre-makers, the pair simultaneously unpick and mock how theatre is made and analysed. The mixture of playfulness and seriousness – which recently earned Lesca and Voutsas the Forced Entertainment award – makes you ache to be in the room with them all.

Elsewhere on Zoom, a quieter performance takes place. As Far as Isolation Goes is a short one-on-one piece exploring refugees and isolation by Basel Zaraa and Tania El Khoury. In their original show, an audience member had stick figures drawn on their arm while being told a story. In this version we do the drawing ourselves as Zaraa guides us. Snippets of story and song from refugees in detention centres resonate particularly loudly but the performance, now lacking touch, loses an element of sorely desired intimacy. I can’t help feeling that the original show would stick to my skin for longer.





Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir.



Undercover performer … Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir. Photograph: Julia Bauer

In Augmented, another recorded production, Sophie Woolley tells of her journey to becoming a “deaf cyborg” with a cochlear implant. The solo piece finds its feet by navigating the line of understanding between Woolley’s hearing and deaf loved ones. It’s a fascinating insight into communication and expectation, and makes you pay more attention to the noises of the everyday.

Festival director Kate Craddock originally set up GIFT to bring a wider variety of performances to the north-east. By creatively adapting this year’s festival to work online, she has opened its doors to a far wider audience. Alongside the shows, the programme also includes post-show cocktail parties and Twitter Q&As. Every inch of it is reaching for a sense of togetherness.

“I’m really enjoying the feeling of being next to other people,” Voutsas says during It Don’t Worry Me, “and feeling like we’re laughing together, we’re sharing something.” GIFT is a heartening study and a solid blueprint for transitioning to digital in this strange and scary limbo. Until we can sit next to each other again, it is a pleasure to share stories in this virtual audience.

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