Peter Ormerod reviews the first day of the Greenbelt Festival at Boughton House, Kettering
It’s hard to think of a more fitting setting for this beautifully otherworldly and yet resolutely grassroots annual shindig. Having spent much of its recent life at Cheltenham Racecourse, the festival - now in its 41st year - moved here in 2014. And, having evidently overcome the few logistical difficulties that beset it last year, it now feels like it’s been here forever. Welcome home, Greenbelt.
It’s commonly described as the ‘Christian Glastonbury’, which isn’t really fair to Christians, Glastonbury or Greenbelt. Yes, it retains a pleasingly alternative, non-corporate vibe, and enjoys a rich blend of music, theatre, talks, activities and spontaneous delights. But it’s very much its own thing, and perhaps its greatest joy is its willingness to embrace a world far beyond what many would consider ‘Christian’: you won’t hear Kumbaya strummed from the main stage, you’re more likely to see a dog collar on a dog than on a priest, and much of the programme would happily appear in many secular get-togethers. To me, that actually makes it more Christian than less Christian, but that’s just my take on the faith. Oh, and there’s a quite a bit of Islam going around this year, too, which is especially valuable.
My festival began at 6pm on Friday in the Playhouse with Finding Joy, presented by Vamos Theatre. The company specialises in ‘full mask’ theatre, with each performer wearing endearingly caricatured creations on their faces. The resulting effect is intriguing, sitting somewhere between live theatre and animation: where the masks could create an unwelcome distance between performer and audience, they in fact engender a winning universality. The craft that’s gone into them is impressive in itself: the faces don’t move, yet seem capable of a full breadth of expression. The play - a silent work performed to a varied soundtrack - tells of an elderly woman who’s losing her memory but not her love of dancing. Her grandson, something of a ne’er-do-well, increasingly appreciates this, leading to many touching, heartbreaking yet ultimately celebratory moments. Cinematic projection is used to tear-jerking effect, with many in the audience mopping their eyes as the lights fell at the end. Some had difficulty seeing what was going on - the bulk of the seating was not raked, and the stage was barely elevated, leading to craned necks aplenty - but the standing ovation was evidence enough that most were swept away by its strange and very human magic. If there’s a better production at this year’s Greenbelt, it’ll be something very special indeed.
Next for me was a discussion about the root causes of conflict (Greenbelt is big on peace). Three speakers gave their distinctive positions on the topic, raising important questions: whether conflict is necessarily bad, what we can each do to ease tensions in our communities and the wider world, and the role that politics and education play in the embedding of conflict in our culture. No-one expected world peace to break out immediately afterwards, but it may well inspire more to work towards it.
The evening ended with Greenbelt favourite Duke Special in the impressive Glade Big Top venue, essentially a main stage with a welcome canopy. Duke Special is a compelling performer and a composer of sweeping yet tight songs, and performed with a string quartet while accompanying himself on piano. The performance showcased works from a recent commission by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to write music based on the work of photographic pioneers Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Stecihen and Paul Strand. The result was frequently mesmerising: each song took as its subject a particular photograph or idea, with projection used not only to display the images but to enhance their effect through sensitive manipulation. If many of the melodies could have been from a classic West End musical, Duke Special’s voice and striking string arrangements lent the songs a sharp edge and genuine drama. A note too about his piano-playing: unlike a few of his peers, he evidently feels no need to demonstrate his virtuosity at every opportunity, instead crafting parts that serve only to serve the songs, rather than his ego. He is something of a treasure.
As, indeed, is this festival. It continues until late on Monday, so there’s still time to sample its many joys. See www.greenbelt.org.uk for more.