Greenbelt at Boughton House: Day 2 review

The Polyphonic Spree
The Polyphonic Spree

Peter Ormerod reviews the second day of the Greenbelt Festival at Boughton House, Kettering. See his review of day one.

In another day in which the weather and the venue harmonised majestically, Greenbelt offered up an extraordinary range of talks, performances and music, from deep inner contemplation to extravagant multicolour euphoria.

My day began with Welcoming the Morning, run by the Corrymeela Community, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation. Despite the name, it dwelt less on light and more on darkness. Sound gloomy? Not a bit of it: its message, that darkness in its various forms is not necessarily something to fear but something to embrace, has been a thread throughout this year’s festival. For a culture - not to mention a church - that is ever desperate to put forward its best face, it’s message that’s essential to express and to hear. A rewriting of the opening of Genesis, celebrating night instead of day, was especially moving. It might sound earnest, but it was all done most deftly.

Next was Giles Fraser, one of Britain’s better-known priests; he is a frequent contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day and Moral Maze, has a regular Guardian column and pops up on TV discussion shows regularly. He can be a somewhat antagonistic presence, and if the priest thing doesn’t work out for him then the job of nightclub bouncer would be his for the taking, but he is always worth hearing, and gave a valuable lesson the large crowd: that total self-reliance is a myth, and helplessness is a gift. It’s only through vulnerability that we can truly be strong.

The afternoon brought delights strange even by Greenbelt’s standards. The Tibetan Monks from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery shared with a packed Playhouse a number of their spiritual practices. Even in age when sights from around the world are readily available at the click of a mouse, seeing these rituals enacted before you makes for a mesmeric spectacle. I use the word ‘strange’ advisedly: this was undeniably different and alien, yet with wholly relatable ideas of compassion at its core. Monks dressed as a stag and bull danced to the jangle of small cymbal-like instruments, a drum whose beat varied from languid to intense and a pair of low, droning Tibetan didgeridoos. Later, to monks dressed as skeletons performed a similar rite, shivering and lurching; there was also a staged debate, marked less by raised voices than by gestures designed to slap down evil; in another ritual, monks blew through human leg bones, the eerie result intended to alert evil spirits to their presence. It wasn’t your usual Saturday afternoon, to be sure, but it was compelling, enriching and highly informative stuff, a glimpse into a world rarely seen and much persecuted: the monks are forbidden from performing these acts in some of their holiest cities. And at the core of it was a love for all living beings, the need for which we should never tire of hearing.

As afternoon became evening, acclaimed aerial theatre company Ockham’s Razor performed a work called The Mill in one of the site’s outdoor venues. It involved a large wheel suspended in the middle of a huge frame, along with ropes, pulleys and five performers. It was evidently intended to represent a particularly loathsome workplace, the ‘employees’ pulling ropes and turning the wheel to little evident effect, before realising that they could have some fun with the apparatus. Cue many impressive feats of strength, balance and agility. Perhaps owing to a lack of voice amplification, it wasn’t always entirely clear what was going on or quite what the story might be, but it all looked impressive enough to keep most of the large crowd enthralled.

A welcome burst of vibrancy was soon to be found from the main stage, where eight-piece dub, ska, hip hop and funk collective King Porter Stomp had the crowd bouncing and energised by an uplifting blend of upbeat music and inspiring politics. Their repeated exhortations to “bless up yo’self” may well become the festival’s tagline.

But music doesn’t have to be overtly political to be powerful. The Polyphonic Spree - the white-clad Texan ensemble that looks and sounds like its members number into the thousands but which on closer inspection have a mere dozen or so members - were like a sherbert fountain of happiness. Their enthusiasm comes across as entirely authentic, perhaps helped by some surprisingly dark lyrics that suggest their hope is informed by a fully rounded experience of life. Their world is not for the cynical, and some observers may need to shed their reason or reserve to enter fully into it, but the rewards are rich and many: you’ll probably smile harder than you ever have before. And in its own way, their music and their performance of it is deeply political: there’s an infectious and playful hope, and an uplifting appeal to unity. It’s no sugar rush: this stuff can last if taken frequently.

* Greenbelt continues until late on Monday, so there’s still time to sample its many joys. See www.greenbelt.org.uk for more.