The show must go on

It takes a formidable personality to organise a theatre festival during a civil war

Imagine a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Zippo the Clown, and you come close to picturing Fanny Mikey. Her frizz of curly hair is dyed fluorescent red, her lips are coated with lashings of hot pink gloss. Impressively sprightly despite her (rumoured) 76 years, Mikey sports a tight- fitting leather skirt and a diamanté-studded T-shirt. On her desk stands a Fanny Mikey replica doll, its miniskirt hitched up to expose a pair of lacy black suspenders. The lady herself is talking to a colleague on her mobile phone and signs off her conversation with a merry cry of: "Shit to you all!"

It requires a personality this formidable to run a major cultural event in a country scarred by decades of conflict. Mikey is the driving force behind Colombia's biennial International Theatre Festival, which took place in the capital city, Bogotá, this month. Just days before the festival opened, the Colombian government was very nearly dragged into a war with Venezuela after a row between Colombia's right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, and his left-wing neighbour, Hugo Chávez. To Mikey's relief, they settled the dispute before the opening night. "They joked in the press that I asked the president to put off the war until the end of the festival," she says. One cannot doubt, however, that even if hostilities had broken out, the event would have carried on regardless. "The first ever year of the festival we had a bomb," she says. " We just keep going."

Mikey, an Argentinian by birth and actress by training, founded the theatre festival in 1988 with her then partner, Ramiro Osorio. The Medellín drug cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, was at the height of its power, wreaking havoc across the country with a campaign of political assassinations, kidnappings and car bombings. The first festival was called An Act of Faith in Colombia, signalling the organisers' intent to create a space for culture amid the chaos.

Initially, the idea was simply to cultivate a domestic audience for theatre, but the event's remit has grown to take in productions from all over the world. "When we started, there was very little theatre in Colombia," says Mikey. Now there is a small but significant scene that inspires fierce devotion among the practitioners. "It is very difficult to make theatre here, as there is no money for it," says Fabio Rubiano, a Bogotá-based director whose experimental show Pinocchio and Frankenstein Are Afraid of Harrison Ford premiered at this year's festival. He financed the production from his personal savings, and has a day job directing soap operas.

The festival is the high point in Colombia's cultural calendar, and a much-needed opportunity for contact between a relatively isolated society and the outside world. This year, there were shows from more than a hundred countries, including Israel, Bosnia, Australia, Benin and Japan. Prestigious troupes including Peter Brook's Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord were present. The UK was the "guest of honour", with the British Council co-ordinating four shows: Kneehigh Theatre's wonderfully fresh and imaginative Cymbeline, originally produced for the RSC's Complete Works season; Bahok, by the Akram Khan dance company and the National Ballet of China; Low Life by the puppet specialists Blind Summit Theatre; and Forced Entertainment's epically shambolic Bloody Mess.

Watching Cymbeline with a Colombian audience drew out unexpected resonances in the work. A scene in which the king is reunited with his two kidnapped sons prompted a shudder of sympathy in the theatre, and the warmongering between Britain and Rome elicited tuts of disapproval. The final lines, in which Cymbeline declares that "never was a war did cease,/Ere bloody hands were wash'd, with such a peace", brought the audience to its feet.

"It is strange; it feels like this play was meant to come here," the director of the play, Emma Rice, said afterwards. "We had no idea when we created the production that we would perform it in Colombia. But audiences here have really taken to it - the response has been incredible. It makes me think that perhaps Shakespeare works better in countries that aren't so content." Kneehigh's experience of Colombia was also dramatic: on their first day in Bogotá they saw protesters on a peace march being tear-gassed by police. "Coming to a place like this is about both witnessing and being witnessed," said Rice.

Inevitably, perhaps, conflict was a persistent theme among works at the festival. The Venezuelan contribution Golpes a mi puerta ("Knocks at My Door") was a nightmarish tale of two nuns living through a brutal war in an unidentified Latin American country. After taking her final bow, the lead actress made a little speech in which she expressed the company's shock that a real war between their two countries had been so narrowly avoided. Again, life and art seemed to have converged uncannily. "We never thought that we would come so close to this actually happening," she said.

The festival was emphatically not all doom and gloom, however, with light relief available in the form of circus and dance shows, spoken-word events, street theatre around the city, and nightly performances from local bands in the cavernous "cabaret tent". Although the event lacks something of the anarchic feel of a festival such as Edinburgh's, there is no mistaking its spirit and commitment. And how much longer can we expect Fanny Mikey to be at its helm? "No more questions," she says, with an imperious wave.

For more on the Bogotá International Theatre Festival, visit:

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?