The staggering line-up for Manchester International Festival was officially launched last week to a packed hall in Manchester Art Gallery. During three weeks in July, the festival will stage 20 ‘world premieres’ – displays of creativity from the full spectrum of performing arts, music, visual arts and popular culture. Alex Poots, the festival’s director, has considerable experience programming seasons at the English National opera, Somerset House and the Barbican, and brings a certain kudos to proceedings, as well as a dictionary’s worth of useful contacts. His directorship has no doubt been instrumental in securing many of the commissions and financial backers – especially considering the potential risks of staging exclusively all-new works in a festival that has only had one previous outing. Luckily the offerings, in a presentation compered by Poots, kept the audience enthralled.
First up was a collaborative project from Punchdrunk Theatricals and documentary-maker Adam Curtis, called ‘It Felt Like a Kiss’. If your spine isn’t already tingling at the mention of Punchdrunk then you’ve obviously missed out on some of the most remarkable and inventive theatre productions out there. But don’t worry – now you’ll get your chance. Like a 5 year old I couldn’t sit still with excitement on hearing that another show is on the way. Punchdrunk is the company behind last year’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’, an unnerving, nail-biting, captivating meld of Edgar Allen Poe stories that filled the labyrinthine Battersea Arts Centre. In a Punchdrunk production, the audience is in the centre of the whirlwind, the drama unfolds around you, seizing your full attention, and also occasionally your body if you’re standing in the wrong (or right?) place. The probability that this new show is going to be a downright terrifying experience is practically confirmed by the partnership of Adam Curtis. The man behind ‘The Living Dead’ and ‘The Power of Nightmares’ is again drawing on the extensive BBC archives for this show. Curtis describes it as a ‘haunted house walk through about US power in the world, and specifically the cracking and wavering of that power.’ The team have somehow commandeered a 1960s office block where the action will unfold over five floors. Oh and Damon Albarn is providing the soundtrack. My advice: book your tickets now.
At the Whitworth, Marina Abramovic, self-styled ‘grandmother of performance art’, is staging a lengthy show – five hours of endurance art intended as an antidote to the hectic pace of contemporary life, She announced an all-or-nothing policy for this installation, typically demanding commitment from the viewer: you stay for the full five hours or you don’t come in at all. Although I’m slightly sceptical about the appeal of a show in which – as she hinted – very little may happen for five hours, if her previous work is any indicator it will be an unprecedented experience for those present. The premise is not far off experimental psychology – observing the impact on the individual is probably half the point. On the other hand it could be five hours of your life you’ll never get back.
Another provocative and elusive agent, Gustav Metzger, will be uprooting and mutilating ‘upto 21 willow trees’ and installing them, upside down, in a concrete plinth. ‘Flailing Tress’ is a comment on human brutality towards nature. Published in tandem will be The Manchester Report ‘09. Chaired by Lord Bingham, the report will collate a wide-range of innovative carbon-reducing schemes, to be presented during December’s UN climate change conference.
Zaha Hadid, in response to a conversation with Poots in which he lamented the dearth of decent spaces for listening to chamber music, has created an intimate Chamber Music hall. The swirling form, set inside a gallery space, will host a series of Bach solo performances. The unfortunate flipside of having such an intimate space is that seats are limited, and only a select audience will be treated to the experience. Again, if Chamber Music is your thing, best book now.
Notable to those at the launch was the presence on stage of Rufus Wainwright. He has written an opera, ‘Prima Donna’ for the festival. It may or may not be any good. I detected just a hint of self-indulgence in Wainwright’s presentation, but the name and novelty will draw the crowds.
So that’s five of a whole heap of quality offerings… The rest can be found on the website. There are events for families and children, interactive events as well as performances, and a third of everything that’s on is free. After the end of the press conference, the room erupted into excited chatter – most were evidently thrilled by the calibre and quantity of contributions. It promises to be a newsworthy three weeks – although only MIF’s second outing, sponsorship for 2009 has hit 3.1 million. So in spite of prevailing conditions the confidence of all involved is tangible. By July it may be the pick-me-up that Manchester, and indeed the rest of us, will need.
Manchester International Festival will run from 2-19 July 2009