Theatre review: Merchant City Festival, Glasgow

Dance group The Kennedy Cupcakes. Picture: Robert Perry
Dance group The Kennedy Cupcakes. Picture: Robert Perry
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SATURDAY afternoon; and Glasgow’s city centre streets are packed to overflowing for the annual Merchant City Festival, including the rich programme of international street theatre linked to the annual Surge event, which brings together street, circus and physical theatre artists from across Europe.

Surge Festival - Merchant City, Glasgow

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So, when I arrive in Hutcheson Street, it takes me a moment to notice the row of seven people standing on the road, each holding a suitcase, and dressed in the universal uniform of 20th century European migrants – shabby suits for the men, fitted coat for the woman. They are the Kamchatka Company of Barcelona; and quietly, insistently, they begin to advance down the street. There are interactions with the crowd, pleading or playful. Then on the corner, they begin a long encounter with some builders’ scaffolding that they finally cannot complete without the audience’s help; before leaving with a chilling mimed hint of the steam trains that, in the 1940’s, carried so many travellers to oblivion.

Kamchatka’s theme is a familiar one; but what is striking is how, in a street-theatre world, famous for broad-brush clowning, they consciously use a much more naturalistic and intimate form of acting, based on the intensity of their facial expressions, to create deep bonds with the audience, and to mount a searching challenge to negative attitudes to migrants.

Elsewhere, Fadunito of Barcelona’s cheeky remote-controlled wheelchair offers a powerful response to traditional attitudes to disability; and in Joe Shipman’s The Hoods, from England, three absurdly exaggerated clown-like yobs in hoodies swagger around noising up the locals.

And although the occasional festival-goer looked alarmed at turning a corner and encountering a moment of dramatic intensity, most seemed delighted; as if there was something satisfying about coming out for an afternoon’s fun, and finding at its core a pulse of artistic seriousness, and a reminder that being fully human is a complex business, even on a hot summer’s 
day.