Hat Fair 2014

Hat Fair 2014 by Christina Cummings

La Fête Franglais at Hat Fair 2014

Winchester’s Hat Fair once again filled the streets and parks with colourful, outlandish performances and installations that mesmerised the crowds. This annual celebration of outdoor arts included talented performers who, as part of the European network ZEPA 2, make up the Anglo-French initiative, La Fête Franglais – an eclectic line-up of outdoor theatre artistes.


It’s laid-back Friday; a world away from the crowds that will squeeze onto the streets and greens of Winchester on Saturday. This is an early-bird glimpse into the bizarre and quirky minds that bring their creative talents, costumery and playful spirits to spectators and the unsuspecting passer-by.

Already though, there are pockets of people, bathed in glorious sunlight, sitting cross- legged on the freshly mown lawns of Abbey Gardens.

I’ve come to see one of the acts that make up La Fête Franglais: Dizzy O’Dare. Queen’s head stamps and polka dots adorn the bunting, which flutters above a duck- egg blue caravan, like the ones in a 1950s seaside postcard but with a steam punk twist. The open hatch snaps shut to reveal a motif of cogs and clocks. A clue perhaps?

A lady in a brown boiler suit and goggles (aptly named ‘Goggle’), approaches the crowd with a fishing rod, poking at those sat nearest, reeling them in to sit closer in a huddle. She knocks on the door of the caravan. There’s a pause then and a man jumps out. He’s wearing a tailcoat and Harry Potter specs and shouts, “Too close! You know what happened last time, Goggle!”

He turns to the audience “Have you signed a disclaimer yet?”

Far from disconcerting us, the audience can now relax, for Hat Fair is not just about the performers, it’s about the people they meet. Cleverly, subtly involving the audience is what street theatre is all about. It’s the interaction between the artist and the reactions they evoke. It works because, at heart, we’re all curious and intrigued.

He introduces himself as the Amazing Mr. E’s assistant, and after some banter with Goggle, we’re all waiting for Mr E. to appear, like the Great Oz. And he doesn’t disappoint; waistcoat buttoned tidily, hair tousled – he’s a cross between Michael McIntyre and Doctor Who. And he promises to take us all on an adventure into imagination. What more could we want?

An alarm sounds. “It’s nothing to worry about!” says Mr. E. whose appealing looks to the audience mean that indeed perhaps we should. But not for long. After a warm up session, or ‘imagination training’, we’re told to think of a box and what lies inside. “Hold your box to your ear”, says Mr. E. “What can you hear?” A flock of birds, harp music and a whole orchestra were just some of the replies. It’s clear we’re ready to join him on his adventures now, invested in the powerful imagery of our collective imagination.

He adorns a hat with an ‘imagination receiver’ that takes us all to a strange place where the Higghogs live; a land of golden crowns and cool rules and a man called Chesterfield who collects voices in little jars, oh and a giant octopus with tentacles that threaten to swamp us. But it all ends well, and Mr E. et al survive to tell the tale and invite us to look inside the caravan where little wooden cupboards are full of intriguing objects from strange and exotic worlds.

A group of children from St. Bede Primary School surge forward to inspect the artefacts. Seven year-old Amy thought it was “really funny and enjoyable to watch,” and her classmate, Isabelle, said, “it was very creative.” Yet it wasn’t just the children who enjoyed this act. Susan, a grandmother from Portsmouth said she had ‘lost herself for a while,’ which surely proves the imagination receiver on Mr.E’s hat really did work after all.

Over on Cathedral Outer Close, five Frenchmen who make up Les Cubiténistes are setting up their stage and stall – a wooden wagon filled with poster boards and hollow frames. I ask Jean-Marie to tell me more. “This is a museum of everyday life,” he explains. “Where people are invited to step inside the frames and hold up pictures together to create different forms.” Later, I see the results of these photographic experiments. It’s like an ever growing mosaic, unique in it’s originality. People in pictures. Literally.

Nearby, along the tree-lined path, a breathtaking installation, Métalu à Chahuter, by plastics artist and decorator, Delphine Sekulak, stops people in their tracks. Inspired by Lewis Carroll and Charles Perrault’s tales, this amazing universe encourages folk to wander through the Forèt de Parapluies amongst the Robes de Princesses.

I asked Winchester Poetry Festival manager, Madelaine Smith, about her impressions of this astounding public exhibition. She had first come across the installation just as it was getting dark. “The empty dresses were moving gently in the breeze and had an ethereal air to them. The next day I saw them again and was fascinated to see them in a different light. The thing I love about the Hat Fair is coming across something unexpected and this installation was certainly that.”

I walk back to Abbey Gardens to catch another act appropriately named Wet Picnic, for the heavens have opened, but the shows go on despite the rain. Pushed across the lawn by three bellboys in jaunty bell-hop caps, a lift on wheels – a sort of maroon and gold-gilded Tardis – joins a group of students, aptly enjoying a wet picnic of Pimm’s.

“Let’s turn those frowns upside down,” they say, plucking the reluctant Lily from her circle of friends. “Pick a floor, any floor!” Lily, clearly apprehensive now, chooses the ninth Floor and before she can change her mind, she’s whisked off to the sound of 80’s music blaring from the speakers as all four pile into the lift. Robotic dancing in the intimate space, Lily, the good sport that she is, joins in, copying their actions to the great amusement of her friends. The lift dings and Lily is released.

I asked first-time hat Fairer, Lily, from Sutton Scotney, what it was like inside the lift. “It was awful at first, but then… it was just… really fun,” she said. She’ll take with her an experience she won’t forget; swooped into the peculiar symbiosis that makes these interactive performances so unreal.

Dipping and diving between the daisies and the marigolds, it’s hard not to notice a green submarine and something resembling a prehistoric creature with pterodactyl wings. Known as Pif Paf these creations are driven by cyclists and performers who offer guided tours into the imagination. Members of the public, adults and children alike, are invited to hop on and make circuits of the park, each time with a tailored commentary from the driver.

A glamorous hostess with a bright blue ostrich feather tucked into her hair makes an announcement: ”Welcome to the departure lounge,” she says. “The Flycycle and the Submercycle are currently out on a test mission.” And as they return, a line of curious passengers starts to form, including one lady, who after her journey ends, jumps out laughing hysterically. “You enjoyed that far too much madam!”, the driver says, returning to his base.

Under the shade of a tree by the bank of the River Test, sits a metal box. It’s covered in yellow tape that says: ‘Ne pas Ouvre’ and ‘Fragile, do not open’. A crowd gathers even before Paul Durand aka Cie Petit Monsieur appears; a man in a suit and tie with half mast trousers and cherry red socks. He nervously shushes the crowd, clears his throat and uncrumples a piece of paper, dramatically holding it up for all to see. Then, folding it back into his lapel, he inspects the box. Pacing round it a few times, he decides to pick it up and for a moment, as he hobbles around, he resembles ‘The Luggage’ in Terry Pratchetts’s Discworld books.

Gesturing to the crowd as though his mission to find out what’s inside the box is purely for our benefit, he begins to peel away the tape, miming “Should I?” his hand hovering over the clasp. After smiles and yeses from the audience, the lid is removed and a large red tent pops out.

David, from Westend, here with his wife and grandchild, watches from the bench. “It reminds me of the Old-Time Music Hall acts,” he says.

The ‘Petit Monsieur’ then tries to fold the tent back up, and herein lays the comedy. A man and a stubborn tent. His failed attempts include him wearing it like an overcoat, his arms and legs poking through the vents, losing his trousers and ending up inside the box with just his red socks poking out. Finally he calls upon a member of the audience to assist him, and there’s much laughter as the duo struggle to co-operate in a Laurel and Hardy-esque sketch of head scratching and buffoonery.

Andrew, who hails from the centre of Winchester, is a Hat Fair veteran and together with the gurgling Teilo, the world’s smiliest baby, they watch as the tent is placed inside the box and the lid replaced. “That was fabulously entertaining,” he says. “Winchester is such a fantastic destination, with so much to offer, like the Hat Fair, it just gets better and better.”

Despite the wetted concrete of the Great Hall steps, Ramshacklicious went ahead with their act, Grime. A burger van dubiously named Judy’s Munchbox, sits beneath a sort of sleazy tree house, lit with pink and turquoise neon. In one of the rooms it looks like Tracy Emin’s unmade ‘Bed’ is housed, complete with crumpled sheets and to the side of the van, slung from a butcher’s hook, the carcass of a cow dangles meatily. Two women flip burgers and onion rings on the griddle, to the soothing reggae sounds of Bob Marley, lulling the audience into a mellow state.

Then, two ‘diners’ are invited to come and sit at a table, but just as they’re about to take a bite, a man in a suit arrives. He’s the Health and Safety Inspector, and he’s shutting the joint down… or so he thinks. Grime tells the story of ‘greed, manipulation and violence’, and it’s safe to say that the welfare of the Health and Safety Inspector comes to a very unsavoury end.

Much more palatable is the dynamic creativity of DJ Boris Viande; a DJ with a difference, who plays live trumpet whilst turning the decks. Adding samples and beatbox as an overture he transforms old songs. He is the master of innovation, mixing the classical and traditional with his own original tunes.

Hat Fair Sundays are a more relaxed affair; it’s like the morning after the night before, as families of picnickers descend on Oram’s Arbour. The sky has the inky drama of a Turner painting, yet the sun manages to cast a ray of warmth upon the stalls that line the edges of the park, where you can buy leather friendship bracelets and candy floss or treat yourself to an Indian head massage and an ice-cream cone. It’s here I catch another act, Tit for Tat – two guys who introduce themselves as Ryman and Lou – one of them sports a manly beard and logger shirt and the other wears a cream blouson and black baggy trousers, giving him a Charlie Chaplin look, but it’s his facial expressions that amuse the crowd. He manages to convey curiosity, anticipation and fear with just an eyebrow raise, a lip curl or by nervously smoothing down his fringe.

Behind them, rather surreally, is a Welsh dresser with pots on shelves and a wooden hat stand. Their show begins, innocuous at first; just two mates in their portable parlour, thirsting for a cup of tea. Music, like a boiling, bubbling pan begins to play. Steam billows from behind the dresser. They start the show with acrobatics, shaking hands and forming quasi-Judo moves, then take a teabag from the first jar. Inhaling the scent they shake their heads. This is inferior tea of course. The teabag from the second jar is not to their taste either, so they try the third one, holding it aloft to the sound of a beating heart as they turn it round to reveal a skull and cross-bones on the front. They pull out a teabag and inhale with relish, both nodding in a knowing yet slightly sinister way, as if to say, ‘This is the one!’

A giant recipe book entitled ‘How to make the most dangerous cup of tea’ is opened up. Diagrams ornately drawn, illustrate Steps One to Three, which prove to be not as easy as they look. One of the guys balances the hat stand on his head, while the other holds a tray of milk and a copper kettle, creeping round him like a nervous butler. In time, the tea is made. All that’s left to do is drink it. A member of the audience is called upon. Fearing the worst, he shouts, “Tell my mother that I love her!” But he needn’t have worried. Three batons are lit, and as they rage with flames, one of the guys climbs onto the other’s shoulders and standing tall, hands free, he sips the tea as the other one juggles.

Fire is central to another act, Cooperatzia, by a collective of five dancers and jugglers, known as G. Bistaki. Their carefully choreographed acrobatics, unassuming at first, reach a frantic pace as they juggle with tiles that ultimately shatter beneath their frenzied feet. Offering ‘creative recreation’ to the audience, they utilise ‘spatial and social characteristics of a place’ to bring everyday artistic interactions to life.

Acrobatics is the name of the game for Fête Franglais act, Acrojou, whose dance- choreographed performance, ‘Frantic’, is the story of man’s attempts to break free from chaos and confusion. Within the confines of a ‘German wheel’, it combines a fusion of theatre, circus and imagery – an analogy perhaps reflecting man’s need to escape sometimes.

And once again, Hat Fair provided the ultimate escape: ‘transforming the everyday into the extraordinary’ it continues to charm and entertain, bringing live art to the very heart of Winchester’s streets.

© CHRISTINA CUMMINGS 2014

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