As Hull’s Freedom Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary, Yvette Huddleston speaks to artistic director Mikey Martins.
Founded in 2007 as part of the bicentenary commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade, led by Hull-born MP William Wilberforce in 1807, Hull’s Freedom Festival this year celebrates its tenth anniversary.
Its stated aim is ‘to celebrate Hull’s independent spirit and historic contribution to the cause of freedom’ and in the decade since it first popped up in various indoor and outdoor venues around Hull city centre it has gone from strength to strength, regularly attracting over 100,000 visitors to see the work of the very best local, national and international artists. The festival’s continued success and popularity no doubt also played a key role in Hull winning its bid to become UK City of Culture 2017.
The man who heads up the team responsible for putting together this extraordinary event – which packs an awful lot of high quality work in to a long weekend in early September – is artistic director Mikey Martins. In post since 2015, this is Martins’ second programme and it is a particularly impressive one, with the introduction of new strands – such as visual art and a series of talks and discussions – in addition to the world-class theatre, music, comedy, dance and spoken word on offer. “One of the most exciting things about the timing of all of this is that as the City of Culture programme has swept through the city it feels like the audiences here have even more of an appetite for interesting and exciting cultural events,” he says. “It has given me the confidence to really push at the boundaries of the artistic programme. We have never really done exhibitions before but because we have been seeing the success of shows at the Ferens Art Gallery and elsewhere as part of the City of Culture we think we can start to extend those areas of the programme.”
The tenth anniversary has also prompted reflection and re-evaluation, especially given the nature of recent global geo-political events. “This year is a fantastic programme but we also need to think about what happens next,” says Martins. “What does freedom mean? And are we really free, particularly in the times we live in? This year’s programme sets out the stall of where this festival is going. The five strands that came up for me were identity, knowledge, democracy, protest and responsibility. If you don’t consider those things you can’t even begin to think about freedom.” Those five elements are subtly threaded across the programming which over three days features 200 performances. by artists from over 25 countries.
A major coup this year is that Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, will be delivering the annual Wilberforce Lecture at Hull City Hall. This event has already sold out which is an indication of the appetite amongst festival goers for reasoned argument and discussion. The festival’s Tent Talks Let’s Talk About Freedom strand – developed and delivered in partnership with Hull University, City of Culture and The Guardian Live – will enable people to debate the issues of the day. In our increasingly social-media driven world, it will give people the opportunity to engage with others in a real rather than ‘virtual’ space. “The talks and debates are all linked to the content so that people can come and learn a bit more and maybe they will find something that makes them think again about another angle or perspective.”
Among the many highlights of the festival is Counting Sheep: A Guerrilla Folk Opera from The Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Billed as ‘musical theatre but not as you know it’, it is an immersive piece which puts the audience at the heart of the February 2014 protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square. A huge hit at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, it combines traditional Ukrainian Folk Music with visceral interactive staging to create what is sure to be an unforgettable theatrical experience. Other highlights include outdoor theatre specialists Perplum’s stunning new adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 and hip hop dance company Southpaw’s Rush, a mass participatory dance piece working with the local community and professional dancers, plus possibly the most quirky of all Haircuts by Children presented by Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex which sees children aged between 8 and 12 being trained by professionals before being let loose in a local hairdresser’s.
Venues include public spaces, shopping centres, car parks and old office buildings. There are spectacular large-scale events – the opening show from French theatre company Compagnie Off is Les Girafes which will see giant giraffes making their way through the city streets – as well as more contemplative and thought-provoking interventions. It’s a fascinating combination and at the heart of it all is the admirable ethos upon which the festival was founded. “Hull is a city that is rightly proud of its relationship to the abolition of slavery. And it’s going through so much change thanks to the economic regeneration driven by arts and culture. In a place with freedom in its bones and with such a strong sense of identity and pride, my question is what can we, as a city, do now to effect change?”
The weekend will round off with the Freedom FEASTival, an enormous community feast to be shared – arts and food, two of the best ways to get people together.
This is exactly the kind of arts festival that should be happening in the world right now.
Freedom Festival, September 1-3. www.freedomfestival.co.uk
The Ragroof Players present Bridges y Puentes, a piece of dance theatre about migration and the search for home. A promenade performance with an international cast of actor-dancers.
ATSA’s While Having Soup invites audiences to have a conversation with a stranger over a bowl of soup. You choose your subject from a menu and the conversation lasts as long as it takes to eat the soup.
South African company Market Theatre’s The Suitcase is adapted from a short story by Es’kia Mphahlele and features live music composed by the legendary Hugh Masekela.