Mayfesto and Behaviour: Theatre for the head and the heart

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Two festivals in Glasgow are vying for audiences – one focusing on global issues, the other exploring feelings, writes Mark Fisher

IN Glasgow, the walk from 63 Trongate to 253 Argyle Street takes a brisk ten minutes. Do it this month, however, and you will cover more territory than normal. Thanks to festivals running concurrently at the Tron and the Arches, the route from east to west will be more than just a dash through the city centre. It will be a journey from the head to the heart.

In the Trongate, representing the head, we find Mayfesto, an attempt by artistic director Andy Arnold to focus "on drama born out of world events". Meanwhile, representing the heart, Arches artistic director Jackie Wylie is offering Behaviour, a festival "defined by a desire to feel new connections to each other". Where one takes on the political movements of our time, from Iraq to Palestine, the other considers the personal politics of privacy and intimacy.

What is exciting about both – as well as the plethora of promising productions – is their sense of direction. Many festivals amount to little more than a branding exercise for a load of shows that would have happened anyway. But Arnold and Wylie are engaging in the world as they find it, shaping their programmes to have a meaning and purpose that is bigger than any one performance.

Hoping to stoke a post-election flame of activism, Arnold has put together a line-up that, in the breadth of its political coverage, would have eclipsed even that of the now defunct 7:84 theatre company. Here, we find a group of playwrights writing and performing ten-minute plays in response to the issues of the day; there, we find Cora Bissett starring in two premieres by David Greig based on his experiences in the Middle East; and, in a mystery location, we find ourselves thrown into a dramatic examination of torture.

Throw in plays about prison, same-sex marriage, fascism and the exploitation of Iraqi citizens and you have what promises to be an unflinching vision of civic life in the early 21st century. At a time when confrontational politics is out of fashion and when party leaders compete to be the most inoffensively moderate, the Mayfesto programme is a brave and commendable blast of inconvenient truths.

That is not to say the Behaviour festival lacks a political dimension. On the contrary, as those who saw and loved Nic Green's feminist fantasia Trilogy will agree, the Arches has been doing a great job nurturing a younger generation of artists who are finding new means to deal with a reconfigured political landscape.

Wylie's programme is a reaction to an increasingly atomised society, one in which even the act of coming together to see a show can seem subversive. Instead of making grand political statements, many of the theatre makers she is working with are focusing on the smallest interaction between performer and spectator. It is as if they are trying to repair the fabric of a culture that has internalised Margaret Thatcher's damaging belief that there is no such thing as society.

Because of its intimacy, this work can get under your skin in a way not possible in mainstream theatre. This is particularly the case with the phenomenal Internal, the talk of last year's Edinburgh Fringe, in which the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed mixes speed dating and group therapy to produce all the emotions of conventional drama with none of the means. It lasts only 25 minutes, but you'll be talking about it for months, so unsettling is its blurring of the actor-audience relationship.

Adrian Howells will put himself on the line in a similar way in Won't Somebody Dance With Me?, a hands-on celebration of the end-of-disco slowie and an exploration of dancing with a stranger.

Elsewhere, the festival makes public those normally private encounters between a mother and son, between a woman and her body and between sweetheart and lover. In a world of motor cars, TVs and computer terminals, such direct human contact seems like an act of transgression.

What this means aesthetically – at least on paper – is that Behaviour is more formally adventurous than Mayfesto. It finds space to include the experimental art rock of Faust, draws on a wide range of artistic techniques and does not always require the audience to sit in a different place to the actors.

Mayfesto, by contrast, relies more heavily on the traditional skills of actor and playwright and is likely to attract an audience keen to engage in ideas but less willing to feel physically uncomfortable.

That the most overtly political material comes with the least radical packaging is ironic, but whatever end of the street you end up on, you will find an uncommonly vigorous attempt to make sense of our world as well as a lavish supply of purposeful theatre.

• Mayfesto is at the Tron, Glasgow, until 22 May; Behaviour is at the Arches, Glasgow, 11-29 May.