The appearance of an over-sized yellow catwalk cutting across Piccadilly Gardens is another visible sign that this year’s Manchester International Festival (MIF) is getting ever closer.
When it was announced, new Artistic Director John McGrath’s first programme seemed a touch underwhelming. A bit dull even, when compared with previous MIFs under Alex Poots’ reign. Admittedly some of the attention-grabbing headliners, who Poots seemed so fond of, were in danger of becoming ubiquitous but it was still a shock to find no mention of Björk, Damon Albarn, Sarah Frankcom or Maxine Peake. It’s a relief to discover that as time has gone on, many of the planned works have started to seem more interesting and often intriguing prospects, and my list of ‘must-sees’ and ‘give-it-a-gos’ has grown and grown.
Nigel Barrett and Lousie Mari’s ‘wild, immersive’ Party Skills For The End of the World always sounded like the ultimate arts festival experience. Even more so for me now, after experiencing their intimate but incredibly intense margate/dreamland at the Royal Exchange a few weeks ago. For unfathomable reasons my friends are excited about the promised balloon-animal making, oblivious to my horror at the prospect of learning to skin a rabbit. John McGrath’s recent comment that we can look forward to ‘the best after-show ever’ makes it an even more unsettling prospect especially as he cryptically adds ‘not only won’t you want to go home – you won’t need to for quite a while’.
Manchester’s two main theatre spaces are both playing host to new works rich with contemporary resonance. Fatherland at the Royal Exchange exploring identity, masculinity and nationality promises to be an energetic and exciting experience with Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde in the mix. Meanwhile HOME will present some high quality European theatre from Thomas Ostermeier with his adaptation of Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims. It’s interesting to note that Ostermeier made a last-minute decision to halt his initial MIF proposal and work on this piece instead, as a direct response to the American election result and the growth of populism.
Let’s hope HOME have more luck this time after their first ever MIF collaboration saw them play host to the 2015 festival’s low point, the interminably self-indulgent Neck of the Woods from artist Douglas Gordon who then enlivened proceedings post-show with a bizarre axe attack on HOME’s brand new foyer walls.
For some reason Cotton Panic! doesn’t seem to be getting as much attention as other shows. However after hearing Jane Horrocks talk about it recently it sounds a thoughtful mix of story-telling, original music, visuals and lots of noise in the atmospheric setting of Upper Campfield Market Hall. Horrock’s genuine enthusiasm for this ‘untapped’ local story of the impact of the American Civil War on Lancashire’s cotton industry has the potential to produce one of the festival’s highlights.
And finally What Is the City but the People? has everything going for it except the location. John McGrath’s description of Piccadilly Gardens as the place as ‘where all of the city meets’ is more wishful thinking than fact. It would be nice to believe that there was some deeper meaning behind the decision to choose a place that a lot of residents will go out of their way to avoid as the site for a collective celebration of Manchester. However the reason is probably more mundane in that Albert Square, the most appropriate choice, is home to MIF’s Festival Square and therefore unavailable. Both Jeremy Deller and Quarantine’s Richard Gregory are well-known for creating transformative experiences with real people at their heart and neither are scared of a challenge. It will be interesting to see if a group of artists can create something genuinely magical in a space where, in recent years, planners and architects have spectacularly failed.
As well as the five shows above, my personal MIF17 will include 10000 Gestures, Last and First Men, ToGather and Ceremony – plus exhibitions, music and a bit of hanging around in Festival Square. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m starting to get quite excited about it. The tickets arriving through the post, the big yellow catwalk, the Festival Pavilion, the banners, posters and breathless Tweets are all signs it is getting tantalizingly close…