What’s ahead for Hull in its year as City of Culture?
The extra second added to clocks as 2016 turned into 2017 served only to heighten expectations in Hull of what the new year held in store for it as the UK’s second City of Culture.
The accolade suggests a remarkable turn-around for a city regularly voted among the worst places to live in the UK, most recently in 2015.
Following Derry/Londonderry’s inaugural tenure in 2013, Kingston upon Hull – to give it its full name – can boast a history every bit as colourful as its predecessor as City of Culture. Founded in the late 12th century by monks in search of a port to launch their trade in wool, the East Yorkshire city’s long history at the mouth of the Humber estuary has seen it grow from market town, military depot and flashpoint for the English Civil War to a trading powerhouse and gateway to Europe at the height of its prowess in the early 20th century.
Three days into the quadrennial festival and in the middle of its week-long, city-wide “outdoor extravaganza” transforming the city’s appearance with light and sound, director and chief executive Martin Green is hailing the first of the year’s many events a success.
“You set out with a belief in the work you’re making, but it’s never complete until the audience comes. We had 60,000 attending the launch on our first night and not far off the same number the night after, and their reaction has been extraordinary and moving. We couldn’t have hoped for a better start.”
This time next year, city fathers will be hoping that the 12-month programme will have a lasting value beyond the fleeting City of Culture spotlight.
Investment in infrastructure has been substantial, with the city’s university lavishing £200 million on a redevelopment that includes a 400-seat concert hall, and Hull City Council spending £25 million on improving roads. Factor in the building of the 3,500-seat Hull Venue (due to open in 2018) at a cost of £36.2 million and refurbishments of the New Theatre (£16 million) and Ferens Art Gallery (£4.5 million) – host of this year’s Turner prize – and the sums a City of Culture can generate are clearly impressive. And with a £310 million industrial development in Hull’s underused docks, the city is basking in its largest spending spree for more than a century.
Sitting on a £32.5 million programming budget – £18.8 million more than the original target – Green has no doubts about the benefits of being the UK’s City of Culture.
“In terms of the argument for the arts – which is stronger than ever but also more precarious than ever – it’s a timely initiative; a statement about the strength and contribution of the arts, but also about their capacity to be a social and economic regenerative tool.”
Green embraces another aspect of the venture, seeing it as “an opportunity to tell multiple narratives to multiple audiences in multiple places. One of the central stories we’re telling is how important culture and art is to places, giving them a voice and a stimulus towards regeneration”.
Approvingly, he notes that successful funding bids to Arts Council England from Hull-based companies have increased 400% since the city secured its bid in 2013.
With a potential audience of 12 million within a two-hour drive, Hull has more at stake than Derry had, with its catchment of fewer than two million and a legacy that has proved disappointing. Among the targets Green has been charged with are generating a £60 million economic impact directly from the programmed work and attracting one million extra visitors to the city.
With one cultural event or more promised every day during 2017, theatre is one of the brightest lures, and the city’s premier company, Hull Truck Theatre, is leading from the front.
Artistic director Mark Babych is quick to assert that Hull has “always had a vibrant and varied cultural scene”. He adds: “But being the UK City of Culture provides a platform to make things happen and work on a larger scale. It enables us to look beyond the horizon, to embrace the world and find our common humanity.”
Among the immediate dividends for Hull Truck are two of its largest ever productions, including the premiere of Hull-born Richard Bean’s The Hypocrite in a first co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Set in Hull on the cusp of the English Civil War in 1642, it is, says Babych, “a story from history but bang on the nail in terms of topicality; a story from Hull’s DNA about our relationship to parliament”.
No less topical will be Northern Broadside’s Richard III, marking the 25th anniversary of its first production in Hull, while up to 100 members of the company’s youth theatre will stage Bryony Lavery’s “huge, epic” retelling of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, transposed from the River Thames to the banks of the Humber.
Hull Truck’s “supported company” partnerships with young companies have also been given a boost by the City of Culture, with one such company, the Roaring Girls, due to produce Weathered Estates, a locally accented updating of Euripides’ The Trojan Women by Zodwa Nyoni.
For Roaring Girls co-artistic director Rachael Abbey, the year presents “an unprecedented opportunity to get involved in something that is bigger than any of us; something that spans the entire city. It’s an opportunity to improve ourselves and the city”.
A famous Hullensian will be the focus of Amanda Whittington’s Mighty Atoms. Inspired by former world champion boxer Barbara Buttrick, it boasts (save for Babych, who directs) an all-female creative team. The last of Babych’s Hull Trilogy, it will, he says, “bring the story of the fighting spirit of Hull bang up to date in a very physically sweaty and contemporary show”.
Later in the year, Hull Truck will host the Market Theatre of Johannesburg in the UK premiere of The Suitcase before it tours to Liverpool, Newcastle and Derby. A love story set against the background of apartheid in 1950s Durban in South Africa and featuring music by Hugh Masekela, it’s “a funny but moving portrait of human endurance that demonstrates how stories from around the world can connect with audiences here”, says Babych.
There are question marks for some, such as Babych’s predecessor at Hull Truck, the playwright and Hull resident John Godber, about the lasting impact of the year-long jamboree.
Although appreciative of the city’s newfound profile, Godber pointedly recalls that Hull didn’t merit a mention in the Arts Council of Great Britain’s 1984 strategy for regional theatre, The Glory of the Garden.
“The issue is not with 2017 and the City of Culture. The issue is 2018 and what happens after. You want it to mean more than two ticks on TripAdvisor. It will be deemed a success in terms of what its legacy is. You have to grow the artists who are already here. And it has to mean something to the people who live here.”
Green says he is determined to “leave behind a stronger, more confident city with new spaces, new connections and new audiences”.
That’s an aspiration Abbey shares: “I hope the momentum already building during this year stays and that people begin to think of Hull as a theatre city.”
More appositely, Babych insists: “Legacy needs to be at the forefront, reshaping the perception of what we’re about and with a multiplicity of voices being heard. What would be the point of doing all this if we didn’t leave a lasting impact?”
Hull theatre highlights
Emerging Theatre Companies Showcase
New Diorama Theatre, London, (January 31-February 4)
Four of Hull’s most exciting young companies – Silent Uproar, Bellow Theatre, Pub Corner Poets and Middle Child – bring their latest shows to London.
Donald Roy Theatre, University of Hull (February 15-18)
Zodwa Nyoni’s updating of Euripides’ The Trojan Women features “playful visuals, music and puppetry” from a company of ex-Hull University students.
Hull Truck Theatre (February 24-March 25)
Hullensian Richard Bean offers a “riotous comedy” exploring the city’s involvement in igniting the English Civil War.
Hull Truck Theatre (May 4-27)
Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides returns to Hull with Richard III, 25 years after staging the piece as its first show in a boat shed in the city.
Hull Truck Theatre (June 8-July 1)
Amanda Whittington’s profile of Hull’s own ‘Battling’ Barbara Buttrick – a world boxing champion in the 1940s and 50s.
Our Mutual Friend
Hull Truck Theatre (August 16-19)
Bryony Lavery’s “huge, epic” relocating of Dickens’ classic novel features all of Hull Truck Youth Theatre’s groups together on the company’s main stage for the first time.
Hull Truck Theatre (August/September, TBC)
The UK premiere of the Market Theatre of Johannesburg’s apartheid love story.
Back to Ours
Various venues (February 22-25)
City-wide festival of theatre, dance, cabaret, circus, comedy and film in non-theatre spaces.
Hull Truck Theatre and Home, Manchester (March 28-29)
Rufus Norris joins with the director of Tate Modern and leading arts figures to debate the role of the cultural industries.
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