Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Getting the Rear View of Norwich and The Great Hospital with IOU Theatre

Imagine a spoken word production featuring two of the country's top young performance poets, a production that starts off in an iconic 13th century dining hall then takes you on an open-top bus tour around the streets of Norwich, a journey which is punctuated with more poetry and performance at each of the four pre-planned stops before returning you to the start point. This, basically, was the experience enjoyed by myself and several hundred others over the last four days of this year's Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

Norwich Cathedral (viewed from The Great Hospital)

Halifax-based IOU Theatre had chosen Norwich for the world premiere of 'Rear View' -  part poetry, part theatre and part sight-seeing tour. Audiences were invited to meet outside The Great Hospital in Bishopgate, within sight of the spire of Norwich Cathedral. Founded in 1249 by Bishop Walter de Suffield, and still functioning today as a sheltered housing complex, The Great Hospital site includes no less than fifteen listed buildings, and features the UK's only surviving swanpit (a water-filled enclosure where swans were fattened and eventually killed for human consumption). The refectory, which has been transformed into a life-art studio for the purposes of 'Rear View' still exhibits a gruesome looking goose quarterer, which could presumably also have been used to section up swans as well.

The Great Hospital refectory (setting for the life-drawing class)

The Goose Quarterer

It is during this life-drawing class that the audience are introduced to the model, and it is where the performance's tagline, 'If at 65 you could say something to yourself at 23, what would it be?', takes shape and form. Performance poets Cecilia Knapp and Jemima Foxtrot assume the role for alternate shows, each delivering their own take on a story that uses reflection, prediction and observation to blur the lines between reality and fiction.

The IOU bus prepares to leave

From the life-art studio the audience is led to IOU's specially converted double-decker bus, an eye-catching silvery open-topped vehicle that has been fitted out with ten rows of tiered, rear-facing seats, each equipped with a pair of headphones. During the 45 minute tour around the cathedral quarter of Norwich the bus will stop four times, and more of the story is gradually revealed, via Cecilia or Jemima's own words, performed on location and relayed via wireless microphones to the headsets. In between locations, a soothing musical backtrack plays, creating the illusion that the audience is, in some way, being transported through a dream that is forever slipping away from them.

Cecilia Knapp performing 'on location'

I am lucky enough to get a seat on the bus on the Friday evening, the 8.30 performance, and the last of the day. I have been volunteering with the company since rehearsal run-throughs on the Wednesday afternoon, with duties ranging from guarding on-location props to replacing the batteries in the headphone sound limiters on the bus, to audience meet-and-greet. I've seen bits and pieces of the show, and caught some of both Cecilia and Jemima's spoken verse, but not had the opportunity to see or hear an entire performance.

Each of the poets has their own distinctive prosaic style, but it is Jemima Foxtrot who we meet in the refectory 'art class'. I have seen her perform her poetry before, both at Latitude Festival and at Norwich Arts Centre, and remember well her distinctive voice and powerful delivery.

The bus takes us up Bishopgate and along Palace Street towards the Maids Head Hotel. It has been a glorious sunny day, and it is the beginning of the Spring Bank Holiday weekend. A lone skateboarder grabs the rear rail of the bus and hitches a ride for the entire length of Palace Street before letting go and peeling off left along Tombland as the bus makes a right into Wensum Street. The city is coming to life, with evening revelers making their way between the pubs, bars and restaurants of this vibrant area. People wave, shout and even dance along the pavement as our bus crosses the river into Fye Bridge Street, and then turns right into Fishergate, and the first performance location. Despite all the attention that we are attracting we still feel strangely cocooned, cossetted by the calming music coming through the headphones. It is slightly surreal, dreamlike and detached, the journey punctuated by each of the four stops where Jemima has managed to appear magically ahead of us, ready to imbibe us with more recollection and rumination.

The final stop ends with Jemima wistfully following us down Cotman Fields, and with the bus returning to our starting point at The Great Hospital. As the sun begins to set behind the city sky-scape and the warm evening air envelopes us like a comforting gossamer shawl, the entire experience has been beautiful. No, better than beautiful, it has been hauntingly gorgeous, and I am sure that Cecilia Knapp has been equally spellbinding in her shows. It has been a rear view, not just physically, but lyrically and metaphorically as well. This is not just a bus trip, it is way, way more. If you get the chance, buy a ticket and take the journey too.

The front view of 'Rear View'

I return again on the Sunday for one last time to The Great Hospital for my final shift as volunteer steward for the last five, fully sold-out, performances of 'Rear View' at this year's Norfolk & Norwich Festival. The weather has held out magnificently, despite violent thunderstorms having passed through just a couple of miles west of Norwich on the Saturday. 

Sunday also sees the Google Maps 'Street View' car driving down Bishopgate, passing both The Great Hospital and the IOU bus parked outside The Red Lion pub, where Cecilia is performing her set piece. (Check out Google Maps once the new data has been uploaded - I should be standing in the main gateway). We also fortuitously manage to avoid tangling ourselves with the 'Beating Of The Bounds' procession, led each year on Rogation Sunday around the perimeter of the cathedral grounds by the Bishop of Norwich and his officials and congregation immediately after the cathedral's Rogantide Service. (This following another slickly organised stewarding operation on the Friday evening when the IOU audience were escorted out of The Great Hospital and onto the bus just as 100+ doctors and partners were arriving for a formal reception and banquet in the Birkbeck Hall. All part of the fun of being a festival volunteer!).

IOU Theatre returns briefly to Halifax before setting off to other Festival locations throughout the Summer. Next stop is the Greenwich+Docklands Festival in London from June 29th to July 2nd. Check out later destinations via their website at http://www.ioutheatre.org/

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