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Greenbelt: Comedy, arts and media

31 August 2012

The visual centrepiece of the festival was a remarkable work by the veteran Royal Academician, Anthony Green. Resurrection is a sprawling piece, somewhere between a painting and a sculpture. Green, now in his 70s, has made a name for himself with narrative paintings, often on shaped boards, in which he charts his domestic life, as a way of talking about what he calls his "pilgrimage through life".

Green works in the honourable tradition of eccentric English artists such as William Blake and Stanley Spencer, who operate outside the mainstream. Green's work is often so intimately personal that you have to look away. When he spoke about his work to festivalgoers, he said that the French called civilisation "petite histoire". Slightly disingenuously, he said "I'm just a little, ordinary bloke, with a little, ordinary life." But putting all those little incidents together made him arrive at "my big special idea: that we're all going to heaven."

Resurrection, like Spencer's resurrection paintings, imagines Green's conflicted, troubled family, heading for heaven, each through their individual stories. His mother, for instance, is escaping to paradise, naked, from a clock, holding on to a lobster. Green plans to join her: "I refuse to end up on the shelves of my local garden centre as a bag of compost. I'm going to heaven."

While Green's work entertains whimsy, he was joined on the walls of the gallery by the illustrations of the Australian Michael Leunig (Faith, 8-29 July 2011). Leunig's witty line takes us into a delightful, dreamy, meditative world which is none the less rooted in red, Australian soil.

In the same gallery space, Simone Lia's illustrations were earthy in a different way, as she expounded a worm's-eye view of the world, inspired by Isaiah's words: "I am a worm, and not a man." Si Smith goes somewhere darker and more visceral with his homage to the book of Job. His compelling, graphic, illustrations explore "rage, despair and hope", and are aimed at helping 16-19-year olds plumb the depth of those emotions.

This proper dystopian edge was picked up by a group of visiting Japanese artists led by Kaya Hanasaki, an artist from Fukushima, the area hit by both the tsunami and nuclear disaster. Artists have been in the forefront of a movement to challenge the government of Japan to do more about to tackle the aftermath, and Hanasaki - as a performance artist - has been part of this activism. For the festival she produced a performance piece that included a live link with the artist-led Festival Fukushima in Japan. In typical festival style, this episode managed to survive an electrical storm and a power cut.

The visual arts were not simply a spectator sport at the festival. The Greenbelt Art School was back in full swing, hosted by Kip and Jane Gresham after a year out, with Greenbelters keen to get stuck into drawing, and craft activities.

Also very much hands-on were Greenbelt's resident artists Matt Raw and Ellie Doney, from the east London group Manifold. They took the playful approach to paradise, using nothing but cardboard and tape, and encouraging Greenbelters to have a go themselves. Their creations magically popped up across the site, sometimes as benign attachments to existing equine sculptures, or as set-piece creations which stood bravely, before they were got to by the rain, or the over-zealous site crew.

At Greenbelt, you should always expect the unexpected. And The Cardinals certainly fitted that bill, although the "family-friendly" Playhouse venue was unsuitable for what became challenging material.

Actors from Stan's Café delivered a play within a play, with the three cardinal characters and their Muslim stage manager, staging the Mystery Plays as puppet theatre within the wider play.

The gently humorous first half lulled the audience into a false sense of security, before the second half tackled the paucity of interfaith relations throughout history: raging wars, burning fires, and radical terrorism, ultimately destroying paradise.

Peterson Toscano's "Transfigurations" was part lecture, part performance (Features, 17 August). His subject - gender variance in the Bible - did need a bit of explanation. Toscano gave a scholarly and witty introduction to a series of characters in the Bible, and then acted out what they (might have) said and done, starting with Old Testament "Judge" Deborah - a manly woman whom Toscano characterised as Xena: warrior princess.

The centrepiece of the production was a fascinating study/performance about the significance of the part played by the bewildering number of eunuchs in the Bible, particularly in the story of Esther.

The piece was rounded up by an examination of the cross-dressing "girliness" of Joseph, which was encouraged by his father, Jacob. Conventional Bible study was never as challenging, engaging and amusing.

On Saturday night, the comedian Frank Skinner finally capitulated to Greenbelt's requests to appear. "You should always challenge your pre-judices," he told a packed Big Top, over the torrential rain thundering against the roof ("It's like King Lear up here.")

Chatty, cheeky ("if my son becomes an Anglican, I figure there's always one black sheep in every family") and honest about his faith, he had the audience roaring with laughter throughout.

As a Roman Catholic, he admitted to being "a little frightened of Christians", but is happy to be a "combatant" for the Church, and wishes people would make a decision about God: it's not atheists he has a problem with, but "ignorance and indifference".

There were moments, too, of personal revelation. Jesus had to experience doubt in order to die, Skinner has decided. And in order to really experience what it means to be human.

It's hard to believe he won't become a regular at Greenbelt. Everyone he spoke to had been "incredibly friendly and lovely", that it has made him wonder "if we were a religious country, would Britain be like Greenbelt?" He even wore a cagoule, "in solidarity".

A brief and enjoyable look at religious broadcasting was given through the eyes, and ears, of producers and guests of Radio 2's Pause for Thought, in TBI Media's "Does God love radio too . . ?"

It featured former and current producers Michael Wakelin and Hannah Scott-Joynt, and some guest contributors, including Garth Hewitt, read their favourite Thoughts from the past.

Having been informed that religious output on BBC local radio attracts an average 1.3 million weekly listeners, the panel also considered the "dos" and "don'ts" of radio, with particular emphasis on how to make the most of that wonderful broadcasting opportunity: the three-minute reflection.

Saturday's Greenbelt online TV programmes, (GTV), included, "Is God . . .", the first of several programmes recorded before a studio audience, in which a handful of ten-minute propositions were presented by various speakers.

Lucy Winkett and John Polkinghorne looked at "Is God a woman?', and "Is God Scottish?", among others by contributors including Giles Fraser, Bev Thomas, and Richard Coles.

All contributors delivered their arguments with integrity, always giving fair representation to counter-claims, in an academic but often light-hearted breezy manner. In between rounds of technical toing and froing, there were some challenging polemics. Afterwards, Coles privately suggested it was a "salutary lesson" in public discourse.

OperaUpClose started life in the Cock Tavern, London, an intimate venue of 56 seats. Transferring its award-winning production of La Bohème to the large grandstand venue, Centaur, was always going to be a challenge. The singers battled against an over-zealous sound engineer, an acoustic that lacked any warmth or intimacy, and an audience that chose mainly to sit up in the balcony rather than on the floor nearer the action.

The production came into its own during act two, when the group of bohemians moved off the stage to "Café Momus" amid the audience. The waitress good-humouredly prevented the theft of a glass of beer by a thirsty toddler, and the intimacy and wit of the production broke through. It was a shame that the weather prevented a planned 20-minute rendition in the Jesus Arms later in the evening.

The talent of the young cast was given full range during the quartet sung by Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta, and Marcello at the end of act three. The final act drew the crowd back into the home of the four bohemians. A tearful stillness held as Mimi and Rodolfo ended their final duet and Mimi breathed her last.

The pounding bass from the nearby mainstage vibrated through the tent, intruding on Clean Break's performance of Dream Pill and yet, somehow, adding to it. The relentless rhythmic drone created a claustrophobic atmosphere under the spacious canopy.

Since its foundation by two women prisoners in 1979, Clean Break has been using theatre to change lives while sticking to the dual themes of women and crime. Dream Pill by Rebecca Pritchard was a harrowing half hour. A duologue between two nine-year-old Nigerian girls trafficked to the UK for sexual exploitation.

The performances of Susan Wokoma and Simone James were remarkable. The sparse staging, simple scripting, stark lighting, and subtle sound cues all played their part, but these two young actors made this production what it was. As one audience member put it during the post-show discussion: "I could see that you were both grown women, but within minutes you were nine-year-old girls."

Mohammed Ali is a graffiti artist who paints large-scale public images to inspire communities, often integrating Islamic script and patterns.

His work is a vocation, deriving from a strong sense of divine calling, and he is dedicated to working collaboratively with communities, faith organisations, disadvantaged groups, and individuals.

In "Sacred Street Art: Colouring the concrete jungle", Ali put his work in a historical context, stretching back to ancient cave paintings, but distanced himself from street artists who glorify only themselves by spraying name-tags indiscriminately, and often illegally.

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