Arts Arts Editor Muse

Celebrating emerging talent in difficult times

Elizabeth Walsh reviews the opening night of York TFTI’s highly anticipated Emergence Festival.

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Image Credit: Olivia Maltby

This time last year none of us could have predicted the current situation. It’s no secret that the theatre has been hit the hardest by the pandemic with little hope of an imminent return. However, York’s TFTI department has not let this ruin their plans. Despite its new online format, Emergence Festival is continuing full steam ahead, bringing four days full of theatre, music and comedy, as well as engaging talks with industry professionals straight to your screen. One of the Emergence Festival producers, Nouse’s very own Blyth McPherson, spoke to me about the stages involved from planning to fruition, as well as the challenges of adapting to being completely online.

Planning for the festival started back in September with the understanding that a socially distanced audience would be possible. As such, the performers began to prepare for live performances in the theatre setting. Blyth explained that they were prepared no matter the Covid situation; ‘we were all continually encouraged to remember things could change and to have contingency plans in place for a move online, which we were hoping to not have to rely on. Alas, here we are!’ Despite the disappointment, the contingency plans meant the performers were ready for any eventuality when the third lockdown was announced.

Moving to an online space posed challenges for all aspects of production; from directors taking charge over Zoom, to designers creating shared environments in bedrooms that are miles apart. Despite Zoom not being made for creative performances, through hard work they managed to use it to their advantage. Blyth noted that ‘challenges which at first seemed impossible for the team to conquer, are now beautiful displays of creative ingenuity.’ The festival makes impressive use of camera angles, projectors, multiple users and green screens in order to conquer the obstacles they faced and to create engaging theatre.

On Tuesday 23 February I tuned into the performance Wild Swimming by Marek Horn and was not disappointed. Despite being first performed in 2019 the play poignantly captures the current cultural moment, perfectly encapsulating the meta-theatrical aspect of the play. Some of the most memorable moments were the comedic breaks of play, which saw the protagonists ‘Nell’ and ‘Oscar’ change costumes while answering ‘would you rather’ questions submitted by the audience. The clever use of a green screen to cover the living room wall presenting us with detailed landscape backdrops which added to the creative virtual experience of the festival.

Wild Swimming details the story of Nell and Oscar, ( Ella McKeown and Logan Jones) two childhood friends who are wildly different, yet always managing to find their way back to one another. Oscar is an undergraduate whose enthusiasm for romantic poetry leads to his  wish to travel the world and  follow Lord Byron in his completion of swimming the Hellespont. Despite his formal education, Nell always seems to have the upper hand in their debates. Sharp tongued and fiery, she always keeps him on his toes. In the end, Nell comes out on top despite the expectation that she is to wait at home to be married. She ends up living out Oscar's dream of visiting Greece and proceeds to inform him that her poetry is due to be published in a collection. She is successful, while he returns injured and deflated from fighting in the war.

Despite the fairly short running time of just over an hour, the play spans hundreds of years starting in the Renaissance period and finishing in the present day. As the time passes, the characters develop in interesting ways. Initially playing down the impact Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has on her, Nell eventually admits that seeing someone just like herself on the page is meaningful. She finds herself, just as Oscar reverts into a shell of his former self. Refusing to move forward in time he attempts to make a portal to go back to the 17th Century. He wants to go back to the version of himself that matches the one in his head; a moment which is very powerful to capture. As the perfect blend of the past and the modern, Wild Swimming plays on gender politics while using audience engagement to its full potential.

The rest of the week promises to provide shows of an equally high standard, with Blyth mentioning that ‘viewers can expect to see an eclectic mix of the arts.’ The festival consists of six plays, all of which are  directed and performed by University of York theatre students. Aside from drama there will be performances by Yorkshire based singers, James Banks and Rumbi Tauro and even a sketch from the university comedy society.

Emergence Festival will run from 23-27 February. All events are free and tickets can be found here:

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