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Ruth Mackenzie: ‘A festival should be a place for everyone to go a bit wild’

When you speak to Ruth Mackenzie it’s her zealousness about the role of artistic director she is about to step in to that you first notice. “The Holland Festival has a tradition of innovation,” she enthuses.

Founded in 1947, the Holland Festival is the oldest and also the largest arts festival in the Netherlands. It takes place in Amsterdam and encompasses theatre, opera and music.

From 2005 until last year, the festival was curated by Pierre Audi, with the 67th Holland Festival – the 10th edition under his artistic leadership.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.10.20 [1]Mackenzie, formerly the director of the London 2012 Festival, for which she was awarded a CBE, has a dauntingly impressive CV, which includes stints at the Manchester International Festival and Scottish Opera. She was artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre from 2002 to 2006, and worked as a special adviser to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport from 1999-2002.

When speaking to her for the first time it is her fierce passion for arts, and their power to inspire and transport, that comes across the most.

She has nothing but praise for Audi, his work and legacy. “He is one of the most successful festival directors in the whole of Europe,” she says. “He has kept the Holland Festival in the premier league.”

“In his last festival, in 2014, his programming broke box office records for the festival. I’ve known Pierre since his days at the Almeida – I would say he has shaped my tastes, introducing me to a new generation of artists from Europe that had never come to the UK. That was incredibly influential for me. I’m a great fan of his and he remains a partner to the Holland Festival,” she says.

This year, Audi’s Dutch National Opera is presenting William Kentridge’s production of Lulu, one of several high-profile shows in her inaugural programme, which also includes one of the most hotly anticipated productions in international theatre, van Hove’s Kings of War for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, a potent combination of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III in the vein of his earlier success, the Roman Tragedies.

“I’m doubly blessed because Ivo is also one of my heroes,” explains Mackenzie. “I think I hold a record as a festival producer for the number of times I saw his Roman Tragedies in different cities around Europe.” Mackenzie tried to secure Kings of War for the London 2012 Festival “and now I’m terribly happy that I failed because I get it for my first Holland Festival”. The production as a whole looks at what it is to lead, the psychology of those who make war, and as such explores ‘what is perhaps one of the most important topics for all of us today’.”

What If They Went to Moscow? is a Brazilian take on Chekhov. Photo: Mark van der Zouw [2]
What If They Went to Moscow? is a Brazilian take on Chekhov. Photo: Mark van der Zouw

Mackenzie has marshalled the London 2012 Festival, but the Holland Festival presents her with a different proposition.

The backdrop of Amsterdam, is integral to the festival. “This is a city that absolutely transforms during the festival. The Holland Festival is brilliant at finding new spaces. There is work being performed in traditional venues – including one of the greatest concert halls in the world – but also in exciting industrial spaces and public spaces.”

There will also be work popping up, she says, in some of the city’s main squares.

Mackenzie speaks with great gusto about the festival’s audience. “While people travel from all over the world to visit the Holland Festival, there’s a really adventurous local audience too. There are several aspects of the festival that produce curator envy around the world. The audience here is astonishing.”

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 11.10.33 [3]One of Mackenzie’s other roles was as interim launch director at The Space, the platform for digital arts created jointly by Arts Council England and the BBC.

“I have an enthusiasm for the ways in which artists and audiences can use digital devices to create work and enjoy work which I’ve been able to develop at The Space,” she says. “It’s not surprising that you’ll see some digital influences in this festival; it would be surprising if I didn’t think that the digital devices that shape our lives are also going to influence the way we experience art. We should encourage artists to share digital experiments.”

Productions playing with digital expression include Catalan company La Fura dels Bau’s Murs, a ‘smart show’ in which audiences can participate by using an app on their phone.

With Kentridge’s Lulu, one of the most high-profile productions in her first programme, Mackenzie – who is “always looking for brilliant talents, both women and men”, said she was keen to make sure that the programme included some kind of dialogue with Lulu.

“Lulu is a powerful story but it’s one in which she is objectified, humiliated, raped and murdered,” says Mackenzie. “So it was important to have pieces that offered some other journeys for women, including those made by women creatives.”

While there are many works that fit the criteria, one of the pieces that seems to do this most overtly is Christiane Jatahy’s What If They Went to Moscow?, a Brazilian take on Chekhov which uses film to draw the audience into the three sisters’ world, granting them power and agency in the process.

Mackenzie is enthusiastic about importing the prom model to Amsterdam for the 12-hour prom – a one-day mini festival inspired by the UK Proms.

It takes the shape of an evolving concert, which shifts in tone over the day, and covers “a full range of the history of music, starting at lunchtime and continuing to the early hours of the morning”, with performances including Anna Calvi and the Metropole Orkest.

La Fura dels Bau’s Murs is a ‘smart show’ in which audiences can participate by using an app on their phone. Photo: Josep Aznar [4]
La Fura dels Bau’s Murs is a ‘smart show’ in which audiences can participate by using an app on their phone. Photo: Josep Aznar

She says the are adopting the tradition of making €10 tickets available for each concert for those who are happy to stand. “My hope is that, as with the proms, this will let people experiment.”

New York-based artist Liam Gillick will be presenting All-Imitate-Act, a free, participatory piece in Amsterdam’s Museumplein, the square that is home to the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Concertgebouw. “This is picking up on a number of things that we tried to do in the London 2012 Festival – big ambitious pieces.”

One of the other world premieres Mackenzie cites is As Big as the Sky, a multimedia opera designed by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. These major cultural events, she says, are intended to bring in audiences and artists from all over the world. “That’s an important part of the standing of an international festival.”

Mackenzie stresses that a festival is about balance and variety. One of the pieces she seems most excited about is Todo lo que esta a mi lado (Everything by my side) by the Argentine theatre-maker Fernando Rubio. It is a one-to-one experience that will take place in squares around Amsterdam – a performance that has the capacity to be intensely personal but also puts participants on display.

“You get 10 minutes in bed with an actress and it’s a very intimate and special performance,” she says. “At the same time, there will be a few hundred people taking photos. So you’re the only member of the audience and the star of the show.

“What I love about that is the show is only €5, and it’s an experience you’re not going to get anywhere else, which is what festivals should be about,” Mackenzie adds. “They’re about giving you something that is really memorable – that is beyond the normal. A festival should be a place for everyone to experiment and go a bit wild.”

The 68th Holland Festival takes place in Amsterdam from May 30-June 23