Style, substance and some class acts

Written By: Stephen Kelly
Published: July 31, 2017 Last modified: July 31, 2017

Manchester International Festival

Beginning in 2007, the biennial Manchester International Festival has now become one of the most important events in the arts calendar. In the last ten years, it’s welcomed the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Charlotte Rampling, Bjork, Victoria Wood, Martha Argerich and Maxine Peake, and many other familiar names in the world of music, theatre, visual arts and dance have performed at the festival.

At its core is an agenda to show original work, although it will occasionally stray away from that restriction. And with a budget of over £12 million and almost a quarter of a million visitors expected this year, plus a new £110 million permanent new home in the making, the event has a bright and certain future. It’s all part of Manchester recreating itself as the “coolest” city in the UK. One of the endearing features of the Festival has always been the unique performance venues, from old mills, to churches, car parks and derelict warehouses. There have been some 70 events in all this year, under the direction John McGrath, and with enough free happenings to keep anyone busy.

Typical of the free events was the Manchester Street Poem, an experience which addressed the problem of homelessness in the city centre through the words of the homeless in a visual installation. Using the real-life stories of Manchester’s homeless, artist Karl Hyde and musician Rick Smith recreated a moving visual art and audio soundscape that gave dignity to their predicament.

At Manchester’s more traditional theatre, the Royal Exchange, Fatherland explored the relationship between fathers and sons. Created by Scott Graham and Karl Hyde the production begins with three producers auditioning actors to star in their own production. “What are your first memories of your father?” they ask the actors. It’s a tricky question to which none are able to give an exact answer. And so, from there we listen to a host of people suggesting salient moments in their relationship with their father which vary from watching football to grandchildren and death. In the end, of course, we all become our own father. It’s a collage of thoughts, memories, dance and music. At times, it’s unnecessarily aggressive and loud with not enough tender moments, suggesting distant and sometimes confused relationships, which left you wondering if it’s a theme that has already been well rehearsed before.

And it’s a theme also explored in Returning To Reims. Based on Didier Eribon’s best-seller, a sociology academic returns home to Reims following his father’s death where he confronts his childhood, working class roots and homosexuality. It’s not an easy return, but rather is tinged with painful memories. He analyses the forces of consensus politics that emerged throughout Europe in the 1980s and the shift of left-wing parties to find a common ground where they ended up speaking “the language of those who govern, not the language of those who were governed”.

The production by the Berlin Schaubuhne and directed by Thomas Ostermeier, uses video and music to progress Eribon’s personal memoir. Set in a recording studio, an actress (Nina Hoss), is recording the voice-over for a video of the academic’s memoir. Hoss, herself however is also a young, political activist who finishes up reflecting on her own family and provides a memoir of her father, a communist party trained activist who eventually turned to green politics after being expelled from the party. His individual activity juxtaposes with Eribon’s leanings towards joint action. We are left wondering if perhaps more is achieved through personal application and pressure groups than through any formal joint political activism. The one pity of the production, which otherwise is commendable, is that events are ever-changing. Young people are on the march and there is a distinct shift back to radical politics.

This being Manchester, there is an inevitable political content to much of the festival’s agenda. What If Women Ruled The World, was staged in a derelict old railway warehouse alongside Piccadilly station. A rogue US general has pressed the button and a nuclear attack is underway. The doomsday scenario has arrived. The American president and his collective (all played by women) sit around a table discussing what they can do. Calls are made to Moscow but all to no avail. Instead Russia responds by nuking America. Millions may have been killed but a new gender balance has emerged from the rubble with 10 women to every male. It’s a predicament that offers an opportunity for women to revaluate their role and readjust economic and social order to suit themselves. A commission is set up and five women (this time not actors but real women, each distinguished in their various expertise) are brought in to give their views on what they would do to change the order.

Cotton Panic is also as political as it gets, telling the story of Lancashire’s response to the American civil war and the consequences of the abolition of slavery. For Manchester and other Lancashire mill towns it meant an increase in prices that had a devastating effect on the industry leading to thousands being made redundant and appalling poverty. And yet it was those very workers who nonetheless gave their support to the abolition of slavery without fear or thought for the consequences. “Black slaves in America, white slaves in Manchester,” was their slogan.

Staged in the Camperfield market to a standing audience, it was almost a rave history lesson featuring a fusion of lights, sound, electronic music, video and a superb, energetic performance from Jane Horrocks.

The cultural wasteland that was Manchester in the 1980s – a collective of dreary gothic buildings and chilling high-rise estates, coupled with a level of unemployment that always threatened to spill over into civil unrest – gave rise to the most innovative music of that decade. Joy Division, New Order and The Smiths, with the help of Factory records, all contributed to a distinctive urban sound that resonated with the city’s young and is celebrated in True Faith, a spectacular exhibition that has drawn record crowds to the City Gallery. Curated by Matthew Higgs and Jon Savage, the exhibition explores Manchester music in the period and features a series of innovative album cover designs and video techniques. You can even see the original handwritten lyrics for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (written by Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, pictured) as well as numerous videos featuring New Order and Joy Division. And it’s no coincidence that video director Charles Sturridge, Factory Records and Hacienda owner Anthony Wilson, along with punk writer and album designer Jon Savage all worked at Granada Television at the same time. And if you wanted the real thing, New Order were also doing a gig down the road in the old Granada studio.

The partition of India in 1947 resulted in one of the largest migrations ever known and instigated some of the worst mass slaughters of all time. It created more than 10 million refugees and countless murders as Sikhs, Muslims and Hindis took revenge on one another. In some cases, trainloads of escaping refugees were stopped and everyone aboard murdered. Through a series of short drama and documentary films created by Sharmeen Obiad-Chonoy’s for a gallery installation, HOME 1947 recreated the long-lost sights, sounds and smells of what millions once called home. Using oral history and artifacts it showed how important lost homes had been and how new homes supplanted old memories.

The Festival culminated in an event billed as “the return of a local hero”. Not David Beckham or Liam Gallagher but instead Friedrich Engels, who spent twenty years in the city managing his father’s mill and entertaining his friend Karl Marx. It was here that Engels documented the plight of Manchester’s working classes in The Condition of the Working Class in England. To commemorate his impact on Manchester and international history an old Soviet-style statute of Engels was transported from the Ukraine, and officially unveiled and now stands permanently in Tony Wilson Place outside the Home Arts Complex. The former Granada TV presenter would have been much amused.