THEATRE / Next stop, existentialism: The London International Festival of Theatre is running its own bus service. But how far will its ride-and-wrangle service get you? Rosie Millard reports

Click to follow
The sight of 20 people clutching pamphlets, wearing sunglasses and boarding a tourist bus outside the South Bank in June usually has more to do with package trips than the wilder realms of performance art. Last Saturday though, the debut of the Brainstorm Bus, a 'Magical Mystery Tour aiming to popularise the discussion of theatre', enabled artists, critics, and passers-by to push back the frontiers of art from the comfort of a coach seat.

'Welcome to the Brainstorm Bus,' said the writer and lecturer Alan Read, wielding a travel-guide's microphone. 'I'm afraid the executive elements of the bus don't work today. There's no coffee and you can't use the Cellphone and I have also been told we can't use the loo, but in case of emergencies, I'm sure Kevin won't mind if you do.' Kevin, our driver for the morning, inclined his head gravely. 'Well,' continued Alan brightly, 'our subject for the day is Site-Specific work. Does the artist have the right to go out and do things in places that aren't theatres? Let's mull it over while we go to our first site. Kevin, if you would, could you drive just a bit further and stop in the shadow of the National Theatre.'

The assembled group, plus anyone else we picked up on the way, aimed to discuss our set topic over the next two hours amid relevant sites in the city. During the next month, the Bus will alternate with a programme of 'Daily Dialogues' held every morning in the Festival Hall.

The Brainstorm Bus chugged off and parked in what looked suspiciously like a box junction. 'We're fine here,' said Alan, clearly deciding to turn a blind eye to the niceties of the Highway Code. 'There's the National Theatre, but what if we want to perform outside it? Do we have an ethical responsibility to our neighbours?' His audience looked quizzically out of the windows. 'Well, I get frustrated in a normal theatre, because I can't set fire to it,' said Chris Haynes, a performance artist. 'I need the right to be able to do what I want to do.'

As people discussed this somewhat radical theory, along with the difference between a 'void' and a 'space', the Brainstorm Bus set off in the approximate direction of London's most famous stage. 'A Brainstorm prize for anyone who can tell us where the Globe Theatre is]' shouted Alan. 'I can't remember] I think it's left, then left, then right.' 'I don't think so; we're now going down the route of the P11 Routemaster,' said Kevin, clearly unhappy about the prospect of being lost in Southwark for the rest of the morning. The Globe eventually located, we proceeded to brainstorm it, after which we brainstormed the Bankside Power Station and an example of Public Art in a courtyard behind Southwark Cathedral.

At each location, the group left the bus, went to the site and held a mini-debate around it. 'In 1613 this burnt down]' said Alan, standing in front of the site for the new Globe. The performance artist with pyromaniac tendencies nodded knowingly. 'Now we are re-building it in wood again. It's the grossest example of heritage gone mad.' The group went on to discuss the middle-class anxiety of site- specific work, the so-called 'arrogance' of site-based artists and the important influence of visual land art. Gina, a Brainstormer who had identified herself merely as 'an observer', said she had been 'converted' to the importance of site-specific work.

By the time we reached Southwark Cathedral to see Public Art, the debate was flowing. 'I think this sucks as a piece of art,' said chief Brainstormer Oliver Bennett, with regard to the piece in question, a metal sculpture, apparently of the goddess Minerva. 'But I'll defend its right to be there.' 'It certainly raises questions about what it is,' said Alan.

'We think it is a Christian symbol,' interjected Ann Fernihough, who was sitting on a nearby bench having her lunch. 'I think it is the centurion who helped Christ at the Crucifixion.' Ann, a delegate at a religious conference, was clearly a Brainstormer in the making.

Meanwhile, the debate as to what the sculpture represented raged on. Someone was in the process of proving it to be Minerva, by pointing out its breasts, when Alan rushed up with a Bible, presumably borrowed from Ann. 'Look,' he said excitedly, 'Matthew: 27, verse 54. It mentions the centurion. It's quite clear that this sculpture is an interpretation of this story. That's all there is to it,' he said decisively. 'Let's get back on the bus.'

'Daily Dialogues': weekdays from 11am, Review Restaurant, Royal Festival Hall, to 10 July. 'Brainstorm Bus': 12.30pm at the Stage Door, Royal Festival Hall, on 23, 30 June, 1 July