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Posts Tagged ‘Manchester International Festival’

You never know what you’re going to get at a Simon Stephens play, in this case a collaboration with two others. A play about fathers, sons and fatherhood seems like a good idea. Using interviews as your source material seems like a good idea too. Having yourselves as characters and including members of your family and your friends as interviewees is probably a bad idea which, as one interviewee / character suggests, might be somewhat self-indulgent – and including that character’s comments doesn’t prove its sincerity.

Playwright Simon Stephens, director / choreographer Scott Graham and musician Karl Hyde are the three creators, played by actors. The interviews take place in their three home towns and the characters they meet and the quotes they use weave in and out of the story of its creation. The performances are fine. There’s sometimes great stylised ‘movement’ and excellent music. There’s a striking design by Jon Bausor and a chorus of extras adds impact.

The trouble is it doesn’t really tell you enough about fathers, sons and fatherhood. It’s a great production in search of something to say, a coherent narrative. Whatever the quality of the staging, there’s a vacuum at its heart. More a festival commission looking for an idea than a good idea getting a festival commission?

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Though marred a little this time by late information and mis-information, my second visit to MIF confirms it as a permanent new fixture for anyone interested in the arts. It’s USP is that everything is a world premiere, so what it loses in quantity it make up for in originality. This year I got to four things…..

Whilst Manchester’s own Gallagher brothers are nowhere to be seen, their former adversary, Londoner Damon Albarn, returns with his second ‘opera’. I wish they wouldn’t call it that, because it sets it up for all sorts of unfair comparisons. It’s the story of the now obscure Elizabethan renaissance man Dr. Dee, brought alive in staged scenes and songs. It is an extraordinary story, and though they’ve got the essence of the man, it’s more of an impression than a story as there isn’t enough narrative for that. Albarn’s music is a lovely combination of early music, folk, world music and Philip Glass and Rufus Norris’ staging is wonderfully inventive. There’s a 10-piece band in a giant container which rises high above the action, with Albarn perched precariously on a platform jutting out, and there’s an orchestra in the pit. As the show starts, a raven flies from the auditorium onto the top of the container and then off stage right. Characters walk onto the container roof from stage left and fall backward onto the stage (well, presumably a mattress otherwise there’d be a lot of broken backs). The scenes onstage unfold below this, each accompanied by songs – some sung by Albarn and some by onstage characters with operatic voices. I found the whole thing captivating if indescribable!

National treasure Victoria Wood has written a musical before (Acorn Antiques) and a play with music (Talent) and her new show That Day We Sang is billed as a play with songs. It has a true local story and with community involvement it has a Billy Elliott feel. It’s starting point is the re-union, for a Granada ‘documentary’, of four adults who as kids participated in a famous recording by a children’s choir. As it unfolds, it becomes a touching story of the unfulfilled lives and love of Tubby and Enid, two of these children. The other two child singers, now grown up, act as social catalysts which eventually leads us to our happy ending. We move back and forth between the 1929 auditions, rehearsal and concert and the filming and subsequent events of 1969. There’s a specially assembled children’s choir of 44 and the Halle Youth Orchestra are in the pit. It still needs a bit of work, but it’s already a charming, heart-warming and funny show. There are two show-stoppers – when the wonderful Jenna Russell as Enid sings about what it means to be called Enid (where scalectrix and swarfega get rhymed, as only VW would) and a quartet in a Berni Inn singing about the delights of dining at Berni’s, complete with four dancing waiters & waitresses – and Black Forest Gateaux! In a show packed with her usual nostalgic references, we also get to visit The Golden Egg and Wimpy’s and there are many nods to iconic products of the day. Vincent Franklin is brilliant as Tubby, who uses humour to cover his sadness and vulnerability. Gerald Horan and Lorraine Bruce are also excellent, doubling up as former child singers Frank and Dorothy (now obsessed with the niceties of entertaining at home; cue doilies and matchmakers) and Enid’s boss and colleague Mr Stanley and Pauline. Young Raif Clarke was absolutely adorable as young Jimmy (Tubby). I can’t believe such a good idea and such a good show won’t live beyond these 13 performances.

Well, if Dr Dee was hard to describe, The Life & Death of Marina Abramovic is impossible to describe. She’s the godmother of performance art and amongst her career highlights we have 700 hours sat silently in NYC’s MoMA being visited and observed by people, many of whom queued all night, and a walk half the length of the Great Wall to meet her partner, who walked the other half, in order to say goodbye as they split up. Well, I suppose if you’re a performance artist, you don’t write your biography, you, well, perform it – and that’s just what you get here. Eleven scenes from her life bookended by her imagined funeral. It’s narrated by Willem Dafoe no less, looking and behaving manically as a cross between the MC in Cabaret and the Joker in Batman. The music is by Anthony (as in Anthony and The Johnsons), William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic and its staged by avant guard director Robert Wilson. It was often surreal, sometimes absurd and occasionally wince-inducing with stunning visual imagery and beautiful music (and three dogs stalking the playing area during the ‘funeral’!). Somehow you just couldn’t take your eyes off the stage. It was much later that I realised how much I’d learnt about her – which I guess is what a biography is for. Extraordinary.

The fourth piece was 30 minutes at Piccadilly Station with a soundscape called Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw provided through headphones. There were no directions, but you were encouraged to explore the space. If there was a narrative, I didn’t get it. Somehow, though, you did get lost in some other world and became only semiconscious of your surroundings. I’ve had similar experiences which were better, but I don’t regret this particular ride.

The original plan included Punchdrunk’s immersive Dr. Who show, but they withheld the information that unaccompanied adults would not be admitted until after I’d booked the other three shows and only decided to allow unaccompanied adults for a few evening shows much later, by which time I couldn’t fit them in. Mis-information about the first day’s opening hours of Eleven Rooms at Manchester Art Gallery also meant I missed that, and I managed to find John Gerard’s outdoor film Infinite Freedom Exercise despite confusing direction in the publicity material. MIF needs to improve the timeliness and accuracy of its information as this is the sort of thing that screws up a carefully planned trip (and visitors from afar – well, London – do need to plan) and can easily piss of the punters!

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Given the difficulty I had getting a ticket, I suppose it was destined to disappoint. It was harder to get than Bryn Terfel (the world’s greatest bass-baritone) in WNO’s Die Meistersingers or the RO’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo (the world’s greatest tenor) at the Proms – but they both had a functioning and fair booking process (and cost about the same)!

This was my 5th Punchdrunk ‘immersive’ experience but the first to disappoint. They say the first time is always the best (Firebird Ball, and it was pretty terrific) but for me it was the last (It Felt Like A Kiss at last year’s Manchester International Festival, which benefited significantly from being ‘linear’). I’m also a lover / supporter of modern opera, not a member of the ‘opera as museum’ majority. The conclusion I’ve reached is that opera just doesn’t suit the form – and the audience didn’t help.

Apparently there are nine scenes to this opera on three floors of a disused office block / warehouse in Docklands, but I think I only saw four or five complete scenes totalling less than 44 minutes in the 2.75 hours I was in the building. There was one particular scene in the atrium which was never performed in the many occasions I wandered its way. What I did see was occasionally through a wall of people or ruined by audience members who seemed to think wandering amongst the players or up close with a singer was part of the experience rather than sabotaging the atmosphere, tension and drama that had hitherto existed. When a scene finished, some audience members ran after singers actors or musicians as if their life depended on it!

It was impossible to get any sense of narrative or story – in order or not – difficult to understand the sung words and hard to access the music on first hearing. Having mugged up on the story in advance, I couldn’t even work out which characters were which! All in all it was a rather frustrating and unsatisfying experience.

An experiment worth trying, but not one to attempt again. Leave the ‘immersive’ to tales best told that way – trying to make an opera fit it makes no sense at all.

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