What Is the City but the People? Well it might also be its weather, and the rainy city had threatened to live up to its reputation all day. As luck would have it, Piccadilly Gardens remained dry if slightly overcast – a fitting setting for Manchester International Festival 2017’s opening event.
The idea of ordinary Mancunians being celebrated on a super-sized catwalk, a democratisation of a symbol more often associated with glamour and exclusivity, was originally Jeremy Deller’s. However the incredible delivery of the concept is so recognisably that of director Richard Gregory. Gregory is part of Manchester-based theatre and performance makers Quarantine. They know a thing or two about effectively engaging with the ‘here and now’ and telling real life stories with innovation and integrity.
It begins without fanfare. A man appears on the catwalk and on the screens it says “Stefan leaves his room at 6am“. He begins to walk. “To sell the Big Issue at Victoria Station“. He’s well on his way along the catwalk in the midst of the crowd. “Every day he sees hundreds of people pass him by“.
At first stories are revealed and people walk to the end and back alone. Their details writ large on digital screens along with photos of them calm, posed and stationary. A newly trained doctor, a mother cradling her four day old baby, a Syrian refugee, a trans woman. Then one person follows another and their paths cross as the first turns back. Then families holding hands, social groups, people walking their dogs. Traditional families cross paths with same-sex couples. A millionaire property developer passes on by a homeless activist. Young, old, and of many races and faiths. Some greet each other. Others walk past without a glance. A living, breathing city.
Stories are told for each of them, small simple details – of hope, love, loss, struggle and survival. There are mini narratives. Tales of chance and coincidence. A couple on a blind date, meeting for the first time with us all looking on. A man spots a childhood love on the top deck of a bus so many years later – they marry and have a family. Random but critical connections. A man unhooked from a machine, after 20 years, as result of a donated kidney. Later a wife who had to say goodbye to her dying husband. He donated his kidneys to do some good. On and on the stories keep coming. The mundane and the extraordinary.
The catwalk starts to get more crowded. People wave, look nervous, feed off the energy or just walk. There is the odd burst of extra movement as people relax in to the music, put on a show or just freestyle.
There is a section where there is no one. Just projected words telling so many stories in succession. “He looks at the city who are these people?“. And then out they come, at a faster pace and in groups. Some we’ve already seen, others are new faces. We know a few people’s stories, but for many we must fill in the gaps ourselves. The groupings have begun to mix and blend. Cyclists appear.
None of it is random – although a lot of thought has gone in to giving that impression. At one stage there are stories of resistance and resilience. In the gaps between adult survivors of rape and war crimes, children and young people emerge and walk unheralded.
Richard Gregory’s ability to make something beautiful out of the everyday is quite something. He presents us with a genuinely collective experience. Part of its power is that you can sense what it means for those who are part of the performance, especially for the large numbers who have no previous experience of being on show in such an exposed manner. When 99-year-old Mickie walks slowly and steadily along that catwalk you can almost feel her concentration and determination. It has freshness and truth to it, rehearsed just enough to pull it off but not so much that it feels forced or lacking in spontaneity.
Sonia Hughes, a regular collaborator with Gregory, does a fantastic job of editing down the participants’ words to invest the huge screens with so much personality and also finding time for a bit of humour. “Oh it’s Bez. Bez from the Happy Mondays. Do us your dance Bez“. And at the end “You have been watching…”
It comes to a close with everyone crammed on the platfom. So many people. But it ends as it started with just Stefan. “He gets back to his room at 11pm every night. Tomorrow he will leave his room at 6am again“.
As I leave, I spot one of the catwalk ‘stars’ holding hands with his girlfriend. They cut across the tram tracks and disappear in to the crowd. As we walk away, other people are heading towards Piccadilly Gardens as they would every evening. Near the fountains, there’s a small huddle of parked cars and in front of them some volunteers are feeding an ever-growing group of homeless people.
“To be continued...”