If there was one criticism of 2016’s inaugural Festival of Voice, it was one common of new festivals, that it was overly ambitious, lacked a real focus, and failed to generate that all-important ‘festival vibe’. Whether this second iteration has managed to address those issues is still to be seen, but on the evidence of the first few days, it is becoming clear that Festival of Voice knows there is true ‘vibe-value’ in producing original work. Mathilde Lopez and Katell Keineg’s Highway One (a WMC and August 012 co-production) sits very comfortably alongside Gagglebabble’s Double Vision and Carys Eleri’s Lovecraft (Not the sex shop in Cardiff) as part of FoV’s stable of inventive, thoughtful, and entertaining new shows. A festival needs an identity, punters need to feel each show is part of a tapestry, and with these new productions FoV seems to be creating an extremely healthy undercard of musically-propelled theatre to act as a kind of textural ballast to the big name international gigs that form the headlines.
It is important that the ambitiousness of FoV remains, and it seems this feeds down into the artists it commissions, giving them a good platform with a good budget (never enough, I’m sure), and ample creative freedom. This is a system confident in the creative talent pool in Wales, and on evidence so far, seems to not be hobbled by the conservative box-ticking that some might argue is stifling experimentalism. Highway One could not be further removed from the emphases of Welsh Government imperatives for arts and culture, and it is all the better for it – an odyssey of grief using as its touchstones obscure Italian cinema and classical myth. That it all works so well is testament to the freedoms on offer with such a platform as FoV. Highway One has no agenda, other than that of its creators, director, Lopez, and writer, Keineg, who want to tell a story that expresses something of their understanding of the world.
Highway One is, in essence, a trick; an extended grief-dream that is full of bangs and wallops but is always in danger of succumbing to the flimsiness of its own central concept. None of this is real – Mari is drinking through her depression, brought on by memories of her absent sister, and falls asleep in front of a late night showing of Pasolini’s criminally forgotten movie Medea at “3am on BBC Four”. The characters in that movie, as well as the great filmmaker himself, infest Mari’s dream and invite her on a journey to Delphi where she can talk with the Oracle and hopefully be given some answers to draw her out of her despair. The success of Highway One is in how everybody involved seems to have been energised by this conceit, and every contribution has hit the mark in exactly the right way – tonally as well as in terms of craft. Keineg has written a sharp and creative script (and there’s no surprise to see Tim Price credited as co-dramaturg), that has flowered from her love and admiration for Pasolini. In many ways this is a more satisfying exploration of the man’s work than Abel Ferrara’s soporific biopic from 2014, and it is much less self-indulgent. But always Pasolini helps create a framework for Mari’s story, and this is never a fangirl project.
Much of the enjoyment comes from the seemingly haphazard orchestration of events. Katell Keinig’s band act as Greek Chorus, punctuating moments with loose lackadaisical (and very Welsh-Indie) songs. Without the classical set-up, this would have been jarring, and even when the band proves itself to be very much not of the “tight” tradition, it contributes to the burgeoning busker-feel of the entire show.
Christopher Elson gives a storming performance as Pasolini, slowly undoing before our eyes; charming, intense, and careering toward his tragically ignoble and grizzly end on the beach at Ostia in 1975. Although very funny, Highway One is a tragedy, and Lopez and Keineg seem to be playing with the ancient idea of tragedy/comedy, and that one can hardly flourish without the other. But there are several plates spinning here. Elson delivers a speech that seems to encapsulate Pasolini’s anti-bourgeoisie politics at one point, and rather than it sticking out in a play about grief, it seems to connect with an audience who are representative of a global population currently in an advanced stage of political mourning. Art is politics, politics is grief. Somewhere, Pasolini probably said something like this. That’s the kind of thing he would have said. Throughout the humour, and teary monologues, there is honed, original, important stuff going on here.
As for the other cast members, they are without fault. Seren Vickers is wonderful as Medea, taking a smidgen of Maria Callas’ stone-eyed performance of ’75 and wringing it for every comedic droplet, she gives it the full Mel Brooks treatment. Having a child-murdering pagan witch deliver the cabin crew flight safety instructions is just one of several astoundingly well-pitched comedic set pieces. Tom Mumford’s centaur, somehow less ridiculous than Laurent Terzieff’s original Chiron, is an equally deft comedic turn. Many would have kept him the stoic guide, and failed to exploit the moments when, for instance, he is forced to corral unruly toddlers through airport security.
But all of this beautiful chaos needs a strong centre, and Siwan Morris proves once more to be one of the finest actors working in Wales. Eminently watchable, she moves easily between despair and humour. As she is guided, she acts as guide for the audience, and in her vulnerability she is entirely dependable.
There are a few clunking moments in Highway One– a few segues that depend slightly too much on a handbreak turn – but this is an emotional, fast-paced, intelligent, enjoyable ride. And like most great journeys in life, once they are over, you’ll miss the company of your travellers more than anything else.
Highway One is on until June 10th.