Spank the Monkey waxes radical about the Manchester International Festival. Also does some dancing.
The fourth Manchester International Festival is currently in full swing, and before you ask, no, I didn’t get a ticket for Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth. Partly because that was the first show to sell out, but mostly because of its terrifyingly high price. If it wasn’t for the opportunity to use the above photo caption (© The Belated Birthday Girl 2013) I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it here at all. Instead, I’m going to catch at the pictures this weekend, like anyone else who doesn’t have sixty-five quid to burn.
When I last wrote about the Festival back in 2011, I focussed entirely on the performance events, and that’s going to be the case again this year. I tried to get to one gallery event this time round: do it 20 13, the latest incarnation of a long-running conceptual art show that concentrates more on the description of the concepts than on the finished pieces. The random arrangement of the exhibition throughout the regular displays at Manchester Art Gallery does it no favours, because you end up spending more time with those regular displays instead. (In my case, a lovely retrospective of local philanthropist Thomas Horsfall, documenting his efforts to educate the working classes by founding the original Manchester Art Museum.)
After the jump: reviews of the things I did see.
The second hottest ticket of the festival is being billed as Massive Attack vs Adam Curtis. However, it’s the other way round: it’s the stadium rock version of an Adam Curtis film, projected onto multiple screens, with Massive Attack reduced to providing the backing track. And even though Curtis’ narration teases us by dropping in song titles like Safe From Harm every so often, the band’s contributions alternate between atmospheric noodling and other people’s songs. Remember how the slapdash cover of Light My Fire was by far and away the dullest bit of Protection? Well, most of what Massive Attack do here is slapdash covers, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to the Archies, setting the historical context for Curtis’ archive footage. Any pub band without a back catalogue of their own could have done Massive Attack’s job here: they’re utterly wasted, and I don’t mean in the good way either.
So it’s really an evening for Curtis fans: anyone who’s irritated by the flaws in his approach to filmmaking will just find them magnified to unbearable proportions here. As ever, he takes several disparate threads – the rise of the 24-hour news networks, the Russian punk rock scene, Donald Trump’s route to becoming Aberdeen’s premier haemorrhoid – and attempts to make them look like a coherent narrative through flashy editing and ironic music choices. The scale he’s working on in this show just means he can leave even bigger logical holes than usual and expect the size of the images and the volume of the music to cover them up. The best sequences here work on the level of pure spectacle, like a hallucinogenic montage of tommygun fire that suggests Curtis should just become a VJ and stop pretending that he knows the answer to anything.
MAvAC takes place in a disused railway depot: because if there’s one thing sets MIF apart from other arts festivals, it’s their use of forgotten gems from Manchester’s architectural past. Like Bjork’s Biophilia in 2011, The Machine is being performed at Campfield Market Hall, and once again converts it into a smartly-designed theatre in the round. Any iffy sightlines are covered by a pair of roving TV cameras, because the setting of The Machine is an event being watched around the world: the 1997 chess match between world champion Garry Kasparov, and an IBM computer called Deep Blue. As the machine’s designer Feng-Hsiung Hsu takes his place at a terminal across the board from Kasparov, we flip between the match itself and the formative events that have led both men to this point.
Matt Charman’s play works on several different levels – a meditation on human consciousness, a pair of closely linked life stories, and a full-on sports drama. The most impressive thing about Josie Rourke’s production is that all these levels happily play off each other without any clumsy gear changes. It’s helped by fine performances, notably a splendidly intense turn by Hadley Fraser as Kasparov, and a carefully poised one from Francesca Annis as his mum. (What with Annis in this play, and Alex Kingston playing Lady Macbeth elsewhere in town, MIF is almost turning into a festival of Ralph Fiennes’ former girlfriends. But I digress.) With some impressive doubling up of roles by the other cast members, this is a terrific piece of mainstream entertainment with some interesting ideas bubbling under its surface.
But if you’re looking for impressive venues at this year’s festival, there’s only one really worth mentioning: the former Albert Hall, currently open on a temporary basis prior to a major programme of refurbishment which will hopefully preserve the splendid interior shown below. And if you wanted to tie in the venue with a site-specific event, you couldn’t do better than The Masque Of Anarchy, a performance of Shelley’s epic poem inspired by the Peterloo massacre, which took place just down the road from here in 1819. The poem comes in two parts: an allegory of the forces of power that struck down a peaceful protest, followed by a somewhat more direct call to action.
Maxine Peake takes on the job of performing the poem, and when her initial entrance was greeted with wild applause I began to wonder if she was too big a star to be entrusted with this job. I needn’t have worried: as soon as she began, she had the whole room completely in the palm of her hand. Director Sarah Frankcom keeps the staging simple – Peake standing on stage in the midst of an array of candles in the darkening hall, a subtle underscore behind her words. The parallels with where we are today are kept out of the performance itself: if you need them spelled out for you, there’s an essay in the programme by Owen Jones. But it’s all down to Peake, who replicates the passion and anger that Shelley himself felt, and makes me feel ashamed that up until now the only part of The Masque Of Anarchy I knew was the couplet that Green Garside nicked for a Scritti Politti song back in the early eighties.
By now it should be clear that there’s a good, healthy populist thread that runs through the programme at MIF, or at least though the bits I’ve been going to. But there’s a strong avant-garde presence too, with all the risk that entails. One of the biggest stories coming out of this year’s festival has been the cancellation of Romeo Castellucci’s The Rite Of Spring, in which the usual troupe of ballet dancers would have been replaced by a choreographed stream of powdered bones falling from the ceiling. Apparently the logistics of importing that quantity of crushed bones from China – not to mention the unasked question of where the bones were coming from in the first place – ultimately made the show unworkable. If MIF had a Fringe Festival worthy of the name, by now someone would have staged their own version in the back room of a pub with a ghettoblaster, a catering pack of flour and a stepladder.
Still, once The Rite Of Spring had been cancelled, that left us with a Sunday afternoon-shaped hole in our programme, which was eventually filled by a last-minute free performance by Sacred Sounds Choir. A women’s choir inspired by a previous MIF religious music strand called Sacred Sites, it consists of 70 Mancunian women of all shapes, sizes, ages and faiths, performing music related to those faiths. (Apparently there were a few non-believers in there too, but they weren’t given a dedicated spot like the others: “the atheists will now perform Icona Pop’s I Love It.”) It’s a rather charming fifty minutes or so, partly for the music – hugely diverse and performed beautifully by the ladies, with the help of a splendid backup band – but also for the feeling of community that pours out of every second of their performance. These are women who’ve chosen to be pulled out of their comfort zone (whether that’s performing in Arabic or English), and are having a great time with that. Plus you can’t help but smile at the huge crowd at the back of the venue afterwards, full of people who are “waiting for Mum.”
But it helps answer one of those questions that’s been nagging at me for a bit: what is the Manchester International Festival for? Edinburgh, for example, is renowned for putting on world-class productions at surprisingly cheap prices: by comparison, I refer you back to the tickets for Macbeth (although a limited number of £12 ones have been made available for local residents). Maybe it’s in the cheaper events, as well as the free ones like Sacred Sounds Choir, where MIF can find its USP: becoming less of a festival that attracts art ponces like me from outside the city, and aiming more at the community closer to home instead.
I managed to pull all these ideas together with a bit of Adam Curtis-style handwaving late on Saturday night, at another free event. While all the cool kids were at the Pavilion Theatre paying £12 to hear Rob da Bank play their favourite nineties records, the rest of us were in the tent next door watching Dave Haslam play disco choons for nowt. Over the course of an hour, I watched as the crowd got bigger and bigger, and the dancing got less and less self-conscious. And it felt like the most democratic thing happening in Manchester right that minute. It may not have been high art, and was never intended as a substitute for it, but it was exactly the right thing at the right time for this particular bunch of people. We are many: they are few. And if that means I’ve just used a line by Percy Bysshe Shelley to justify my dancing to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on a Saturday night, so be it.
Manchester International Festival 2013 continues until July 21st: see site for details of individual events. Massive Attack vs Adam Curtis and The Machine will transfer to Park Avenue Armory in New York in September.
Spank The Monkey has been blogging on arts and culture for exactly fifteen years this week, and still nobody appears capable of stopping him.