Destination Manchester International Festival

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Laugh if you like, but this year I’m heading to Manchester International Festival for my summer holidays.

Even if I felt inclined to jet off abroad, the traffic light system feels like too much of a lottery and, as a solo traveller, price hikes make even UK destinations unaffordable for now. Meanwhile, there are ‘enhanced local measures’, and the official advice, (for what it’s worth), is that travel in and out of Greater Manchester “should be minimised where possible”.

So perhaps a work-free fortnight in my home city isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. No expensive single supplements, stressful train delays, or unexpected stays in a quarantine hotel. Although just spending two weeks feeling smug about my holiday’s low carbon footprint is an option, I’d really welcome some joy, variety, and new experiences – and just to avoid me frittering away this precious time watching Netflix, a bit of structure. Which is where MIF comes in.

All of the above may not seem too much to ask of a festival, but I’ve other bigger expectations of this 18-day celebration of culture. After the last 16 months, I’m still a bit stuck in lockdown mode, my life has settled into a routine, and my ‘world’ has shrunk. I know others will already have moved on from such things, but it was never going to be the opportunity to sink a pint inside a pub or fill a shopping basket to overflowing in Primark that would encourage me to more fully navigate the ‘new normal’. It was always going to be the reopening of theatres, and galleries, and other cultural spaces that would force me to expand my horizons once again, and it’s been quite a wait. So as clichéd as it may sound, I won’t need any luggage for my two-week break but I’ve got a bit of personal baggage to start unpacking.

Anyway, back to my holiday plans…

Come 4pm on Thursday, I’ll be unplugging and taking apart my work IT kit. Just over two hours later, I’ll be on Deansgate for Boris Charmatz’s Sea Change. His last MIF show 10000 Gestures seemed to divide opinion when it finally landed in London, but when I saw it at Mayfield Depot in 2017 I just found it hugely exhilarating. So, although I’m trying not to read too much about what his latest dance piece, choreographed for 120 local residents and located on the city centre’s main thoroughfare, will involve, my expectations are high.

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While dance and theatre are a bit thin on the ground at this year’s festival, it’s still a lot more than has been on offer in Manchester for most of the last 12 months, so I’m not complaining. Theatre-wise, I’m seeing director Rae McKen’s Notes on Grief, (based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent book), early on in its run. Described on MIF’s website as “a space for those who have experienced loss to gather and reflect”, it’s one of many works that will undoubtedly connect in audiences’ minds with the events of recent months.

In a similar vein, Theatre-Rites’ The Global Playground is partly inspired by “our year under lockdown”. However, it promises to be an uplifting show for families and children, and hopefully for me too when I see it near the end of the second week. If I’ve learned anything from previous MIFs, it is that you dismiss the festival’s family offer at your peril. Even without children in tow, I thoroughly enjoyed Theatre-Rites’ MIF17 show The Welcoming Party, and in 2019 Studio ORKA’s Tuesday was just magical.

In between those two shows, I’ve got lots of non-theatrical stuff planned in – including experiencing two evenings of music at Manchester Central courtesy of MIF x Salaam Festival and The Patience of Trees; popping along to Piccadilly Gardens for a close-up look at Marta Minujín’s 42 metres’ worth of Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books; and seeing exhibitions in various venues including the Central Library’s iconic Reading Room and the (I’m struggling for a word to describe it adequately) Arndale Centre.

These destinations are very familiar to me but, in a sign of the times, I realise I haven’t visited any of them since before January 2020. In Manchester Central’s case, my last visit was for a concert, back when it was called G-Mex, and before the building’s elegant interior was lost to that strange world of trade shows, corporate events, and party conferences.

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MIF can usually be counted on to take you into unusual spaces. 2019 saw shows taking place in a pop-up brewery underneath Victoria station, a Grade 1 listed church in Pendleton, and a Cheetham Hill social club. Presumably the search for spacious and well-ventilated venues, and the logistics involved in getting audiences in and out of shows safely, has meant that choices are more limited this time.

There is though one opportunity to see inside somewhere that has so far been off limits to the public – the festival’s future home, The Factory. Although still under construction, for one night only, it will host Deborah Warner’s installation Arcadia. Expect poetry, inspired by nature, emanating from within a series of luminous tents. Hopefully it won’t be drowned out too often by the sound of boy racers revving their way along Trinity Way.

Even MIF can’t be expected to fill a full fortnight of my time, and there’s a glaring two evening gap in my diary where Patti Smith might have been, but fortunately the festival has also coincided with the wider reopening of the city’s cultural venues. So I’ve been able to add more theatre to my holiday schedule. Including a visit to the just reopened Royal Exchange to see Lauryn Redding’s self-penned gig-musical Bloody Elle, and an evening in a skate park under the Mancunian Way for Contact Young Company’s new show Saturnalia. The opportunity to see Manchester legends Quarantine’s latest show in development is an unexpected bonus, with a limited number of places available to watch the open rehearsals of durational piece 12 Last Songs at HOME.

Back in the world of holidays, I’ve got realistic expectations. I’m not expecting a fortnight filled with Instagram-able views, or even something worthy of the cover of a picture postcard. While I’m looking forward to sunny afternoons in Festival Square with good music and an ice cream (preferably something with cherries in from Ginger’s Comfort Emporium), for me it’ll be about more than wish-you-were-here moments.

I wasn’t always so solitary. City life was about being part of an audience, seeing an exhibition in a gallery full of other people, or catching up with friends after a show. When I step out on Thursday night for MIF’s opening event, I’ll be hoping to experience a sea change in more ways than one.

Manchester International Festival runs from Thursday 1st July to Sunday 18th July 2021. 

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