Re:Creating Europe @ MIF19



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Re:Creating Europe

By MIF, De Balie and Internationaal Theater Amsterdam

Lyric Theatre, The Lowry

12 July 2019


7. Juliet Stevenson and Halina Reijn in ReCreating Europe at Manchester International Festival 2019 Credit Joel Fildes.jpg

‘Please do not waste this time.’

Re:Creating Europe must be classed as an opportunity missed, unfortunately. What you were led to expect from the billing was an interrogation, which would be both nuanced and rigorous, of the idea of Europe (which would naturally include but would not be limited to the EU). What you got instead was a few quotes from European writers (for example, Goethe, Shakespeare and Donne: unsurprisingly that ‘No man is an island’ line cropped up) together with video clips and speeches (read aloud) from various grotesque, intellectually enfeebled politicians and even a couple of spillover speeches taken from The Fountainhead (the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s production of a couple of nights before) which were not in fact about Europe at all. It was cobbled together to no particular purpose. Just another Brexitfest.

To be fair, the opener was a considered, coherent effort. Michael Morpurgo gave a speech entitled Phoenix of Peace. His thesis here was that there had been peace in Europe for about 75 years and we should thank the EU for it, despite its faults, and we should aim to stay in or stay close to it. Remain and reform, the usual shtick. There is something to be said for this point of view, but he misses a fair few points.

For one thing, there was a cold war in Europe from 1945 – which is not peace exactly, certainly not from the point of view of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland. For another thing, what prevented the cold war becoming a full blown affair was not the EU but NATO (an organisation not mentioned at all by Morpurgo): American tanks in Berlin, the nuclear deterrent. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was war in Europe, in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, and the EU (and, to be fair, the UN too) were ineffectual in bringing about peace. It was left to NATO to do the job. You are drawn to the conclusion that the best way for European nations to ensure peace in Europe is to meet their NATO commitment of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Britain does this, yet many others (Germany, France and Italy among them) do not. And so on…

Certain good, even great European writers have made the case for the unification of Europe. For example, Stefan Zweig thought that Switzerland – a peaceful country with Italian, French and German communities – would make a good model. Switzerland has never shown any desire to actually join the EU, and in recent months the EU seems to be becoming quite antagonistic toward it  Zweig was not quoted in this show, unfortunately.

Re:Creating Europe was showing at The Lowry as part of the Manchester International Festival 2019. Further details can be found here.

Invisible Cities @ MIF19



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Invisible Cities

By 59 Productions and Rambert

Mayfield, 5 July 2019

 Invisible Cities-MIF 2019 - Rambert (c) Tristram Kenton.jpg

Invisible Cities. Photo by Tristram Kenton

In Italo Calvino’s fantastical novel Marco Polo describes various imaginary cities to the great Kublai Khan.

That is what happens here, pretty much. Following their dialogue, Rambert’s dancers bring those cities, or rather the forms of life which they embody, to the stage. It seems that some cities exist for leisure and pleasure, while others twist their inhabitants into strange shapes if they want to survive. The venue of the play, Mayfield, an artery of steel and stone, belongs to a city that is firmly in the latter camp.

It was a bit too talky and verbose at first, in my view. An awful lot of sub-Shakespearean dialogue, though Matthew Leonhart (Marco Polo) and Danny Sapani (Kublai Khan) ploughed through it as best they could. The final few scenes were in many ways the most exciting. Here the city was modern Venice (or perhaps any other major European city you might think of), plagued by tourists rolling trolleys along streets clogged with consumer waste. You were left in the end with the impression that a pure dance production might have been more successful.

Invisible Cities is showing at Mayfield as part of the Manchester International Festival. Further details can be found here.

Tree @ MIF19



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Created by Idris Elba & Kwame Kwei-Armah

Campfield Market Hall, 4 July 2019


Sinead Cusack and Alfred Enoch in Tree @ MIF19. Photo by Marc Brenner

A brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa.

Following his mother’s death, Kaelo (Alfred Enoch) journeys to South Africa. Both his parents were from there – though he never knew his father, he died before his birth – and he wants to place her ashes on his fathers grave. Problem is, though, that his father was abducted, ‘disappeared’, by some white supremacist hit squad back in the day, and his grave (if, in fact, he had been buried) is not known.

Kaelo lodges with his grandmother (Sinead-Cusack), a farmer, and also makes contact with his sister or half-sister, who is involved in current protests about land reclamation and restitution (which target his grandmother’s estate). She leads a noisy, violent, righteous faction. And with that Kaelo’s quest for his father’s resting place crashes into South Africa’s present political disputes big-time.

This is a decent drama, inspired in part by Idris Elba’s recent album. Alfred Enoch plays Kaelo as a slightly prissy London liberal, looking very dapper in his carrot-shaped pants, and prone to take offence and start arguments over very little. He idolises Nelson Mandela, whereas his sister sees him as just another politician who didn’t deliver. This is a South Africa where peace and reconciliation seem a long way off.

The space of Campfield Market Hall is used well: the audience stand during the performance, and seem themselves like a forest of trees. Enoch traverses the audience as he tours his grandmother’s estate. And the protestors are dispersed throughout the audience, placards going up at certain points. Also, you always had a good view of the stage.

Tree, a brutalist sculpture of contemporary South Africa, is showing at the Campfield Market Hall as part of the Manchester International Festival 2019. Further details can be found here.

One Night in Miami…



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One Night in Miami…

By Kemp Powers

Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company

HOME, 2 July 2019

7: Conor Glean (Cassius Clay), Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown), Matt Henry (Sam Cooke), and Christopher Colquhoun (Malcolm X) in One Night in Miami…, by Kemp Powers, directed by Matthew Xia, produced by the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre. At HOME Manchester (Tue 2 - Fri 5 July 2019). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Conor Glean (Cassius Clay), Miles Yekinni (Jim Brown), Matt Henry (Sam Cooke), and Christopher Colquhoun (Malcolm X) in One Night in Miami…, by Kemp Powers, directed by Matthew Xia, produced by the Nottingham Playhouse Theatre. At HOME Manchester (Tue 2 – Fri 5 July 2019). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

On a sweltering hot night in Miami in 1964, four men meet up.

All good friends, they were also, even then, well known to the world through their accomplishments in their respective fields. There is Jim Brown, celebrated footballer and lately an actor, who some decades later will become the subject of a Spike Lee film. Malcolm X, a politician, writer and social activist. Sam Cooke, soul singer and businessman. And finally Cassius Clay (not yet Muhammad Ali), a boxer just crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World. The men shoot the breeze, talk about whatever happens to be happening in their lives – all black, they have inherited that complex legacy – each man’s life careening toward a crisis point. We know, of course, that two of these men will soon be murdered.

It is an engaging, entertaining play but what raises it right to the top are the convincing character portraits proffered by the four principals. Conor Glean, for example, plays Clay as a brash kid, very full of himself even then (but aware of it as well) and plenty naïve still, but good natured. Someone who is easy to love. Miles Yekinni’s Brown is a successful sportsman, but he is as aware as any of the others of the prejudice that surrounds him, of what is possible and what ain’t.Then Matt Henry as Cooke is a ball of nervous energy, a force of nature. Henry performs a couple of great Sam Cooke songs here, has the lungpower to deliver them in style. Cooke comes across as a shrewd businessman who wants to become much more. He wants transform other lives as well as his own. Finally, Colquhoun’s Malcolm X is a cerebral man who lives too much in his head. His integrity torments him. Conflicted and wrestling with his conscience, he is about to place himself in great danger.

One Night in Miami… is at HOME until 5 July, details here.

Unquiet Graves




Unquiet Graves

Directed by Sean A Murray

UK, 2018

HOME, 12 June 2019

Unquiet Graves

This documentary is a difficult watch, and that for a host of reasons.

One reason is because the grief, still, is all too real. And the testimony of families affected is overwhelming. So you hear from grown men and women, who as children lost a father or mother, still perplexed by their absence. You see an old woman who, as a young wife and mother, watched her husband die and later had to identify one of his killers (she had answered the door to his killers). The grief and sorrow is palpable and, you know for sure, will remain with them after you have watched the film.

Another reason is that it makes a compelling case for collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) – and therefore the British state – in over a hundred murders. Indeed, in some instances serving police officers took part in killings. There is the further claim that this involvement ‘came right from the very top’, which would be at prime ministerial or cabinet level, not merely the activities of MI5 or MI6, and entailed a colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ aimed at the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. I am unsure whether to accept this entirely; after all, these two communities were pretty divided anyway. But the evidence may be found in the minutes of a key meeting held at Chequers during Harold Wilson’s tenure as PM. Those minutes should be investigated and disclosed.

Further details of the film can be had here.

Hobson’s Choice @ the Royal Exchange Theatre



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Hobson’s Choice

By Harold Brighouse

Royal Exchange Theatre, 5 June 2019

Shalini Peiris and Esh Alladi in Hobson's Choice at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Shalini Peiris and Esh Alladi in Hobson’s Choice at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Photo by Marc Brenner.

A kind of quotidian magic.

Tanika Gupta’s re-imagining of Harold Brighouse’s Edwardian comedy – setting it in Manchester’s Northern Quarter in the 1980s and making the protagonists an Asian family recently arrived from Uganda – works wonderfully well.

It is at once a queer sort of romance (very brisk and business-like), a boisterous comedy and a hard-headed look at life’s robust limitations. Here the Asian family run a tailor’s shop, and the person you are drawn to most of all is Durga Hobson (Shalini Peiris), the eldest daughter. She is the brains behind the business, not to mention the hardest grafter out of all of them, besides having to contend with her father swanning around as a sort of titular figurehead, though frankly he is more often than not to be found off down the pub. Networking, it is called. What you glean about Durga is that, as well as being direct and down to earth, she is generous and (whisper it softly in her presence) a mite vulnerable.

Hobson’s Choice is in many respects an unpretentious, even a pedestrian play. But it also has a kind of quotidian magic. It is one of those plays where, as circumstances change in the surrounding world, people also are driven to change – or they fail to do so. In slo-mo, fates are revealed. Some people adapt and prosper, others fall by the wayside. Some show mettle and strength, while some are weak or callous toward others.

There are terrific performances here from a talented cast – not least from Esh Alladi as Ali Mossop. A wholly engrossing, highly entertaining evening’s theatre.

Hobson’s Choice is showing at the Royal Exchange until 6 July, further details can be found here.

Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero



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Halle Orchestra: Ravel’s Bolero

The Bridgewater Hall, 9 May 2019

Sir Mark Elder and the Halle

This was an impromptu concert, so an unexpected bonus, and all the better for that.

Sir Mark Elder conducted the Halle and the orchestra played these three wonderful works:

  • Debussy: Images for Orchestra
  • Mussorgsky (in an orchestration by Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Ravel: Bolero

You could see how the works, although in many respects very different in tone and texture, were interlinked. Debussy’s Images for Orchestra aimed to evoke scenes from memory – it is focussed around various countries – and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition attempted a similar feat: it was about a painter and his pictures. There is a difference, mind, between memories, psychological images as it were, and external vision: pictures, things seen in the world.

Ravel orchestrated the version of Mussorgsky’s work performed here and he composed the final work, Bolero. There is also a further connection: the most elaborate of Debussy’s Images focuses on Spain, the country from which Bolero takes its inspiration.

In Bolero just the one theme is repeated again and again, with more colour and orchestration gradually added with each repetition. But the underlying theme is always present, never obscured. It is thrilling – the way it builds up to a climax, the uncertainty as to how it will all end – but a bit gimmicky, in truth: you are pleased that Ravel wrote it because that means that no one else now has to. Here, though, a visual analogy occurred to me. That Bolero is like one of those Warhol silkscreen prints where the same image (say: Marilyn pouting, Elvis drawing a gun) is repeated over and over, with slight variations in colouring, say.

An evening of vital music and visual culture. A lot to hear, a lot to see.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

In Fabric


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In Fabric

Directed by Peter Strickland

UK, 2018

HOME, 11 July 2019

In Fabric

A weird, wonderful witches’ brew of a film.

First ingredient, it references and echoes those British portmanteau horror films of yesteryear. Here we have an accursed red dress that one person buys in a sale (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a woman coming out of a divorce and wanting to dress to impress a date), another picks up for cheap in a charity shop (intending to give it to a bridegroom on a stag night). The dress is bad news for anyone who buys wears it. And it doesn’t like to be washed.

Second, there is the fetishism. Whilst not as explicit as in Peter Strickland’s previous film, The Duke of Burgundy, which peeped at the inner workings of a sadomasochistic relationship, it is explicit enough. One character is called Gwen, perhaps a nod to John Willie’s graphic novel.

Third ingredient is the black humour, which puts you in mind often of Chris Morris. Then (fourth) there is the atmospheric, unsettling soundtrack courtesy of Cavern of Anti-Matter.

Altogether, it is a potent mix and In Fabric is a film that probably won’t work for everyone. Mind, I would say there is enough to interest and intrigue, if not always entertain.

Halle Orchestra @ MIF19


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Halle Orchestra

The Bridgewater Hall, 11 July 2019

The Halle performing in concert. Photo by Russell Hart.

The Halle performing in concert. Photo by Russell Hart

An event of two halves.

In the first half, we had a sometimes lively discussion about a work-in-progress to be premiered at The Factory, MIF’s new venue (The Factory is to be built on the site of the old Granada Studios complex, so Tony Wilson’s old stomping ground). Mark Ball, Creative Director of MIF, took part along with Sir Mark Elder and Johan Simons, with Elizabeth Alker keeping them on quite a loose leash. We learnt that Sir Mark and the Halle would perform Shostakovich’s fourth symphony and that Simons would adapt Grossman’s Life and Fate (and, who knows, perhaps its presequel Stalingrad, only translated into English this year) for this new work. An interesting collaboration.

As for the second half, there Jonathon Heyward conducted the Halle in a blistering performance of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony (the composer’s seventh). Heyward’s astute conducting was attuned to the defiant, anxiety-ridden music, so lyrical and explosive, so replete with poetically charged booby traps. Like a trekthrough a treacherous labyrinth. You were uprooted but still standing at the end; and grateful for that.


The Fountainhead @ MIF19


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The Fountainhead

By Ayn Rand, adapted by Koen Tachelet

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam

Lyric Theatre, Lowry

10 July 2019

The Fountainhead at Manchester International Festival 2019 image credit Tristram Kenton-393.jpg

The Fountainhead at Manchester International Festival 2019. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

This play was an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s elephantine doorstopper of a novel.

I must confess at the start that I have never actually read the novel in full (because of its awful prose and sub-Nietzschean philosophy mainly, and I have better things to do with my life), though I have peeked at a few passages before putting it aside. Anyway, her protagonist, an architect by the name of Howard Roark, is an exemplar of Objectivism (Rand’s name for her ‘philosophy’, so called). You could say that he fulfils the same function as Mathieu in  Iron in the Soul.

The play is well produced and it is in Dutch with English subtitles, the English text appearing on three different screens at once (as with operas sung in Italian, say), so that did not present an issue. The real issue was The Fountainhead itself. Why do we need to see this play now? Is Rand’s ethic (basically, she espouses rational self interest) really so urgent?

Consider, for example, the quite disturbing scene where Roark rapes Dominique, a woman he wants (or wanted at a certain moment). For her (in Rand’s telling) the rape is a moment of transformative joy. She thereby becomes a complete woman. This is Rand’s view, perhaps, but it is clearly out of step (to put it mildly) with current understanding.

Then there is the issue that a lot of the philosophy put in the mouth of Roark (along the lines of great men, geniuses like him, are always persecuted by the herd…) are just so embarrassing, or beyond embarrassing. It is adolescent Nietzschean piffle: a teenager against the world. And as for the claim that ‘the man who invented fire was killed by the people…’ – well, is there actually any evidence for this in the archaeological record? Or is it just more speculative, self-justifying bullshit?

Roark is a strange architect as well. He is described as a Modernist, but he is unlike (say) Loos or Otto Wagner. He doesn’t seem to believe that people should use, live in, his buildings as they see fit. No wonder he doesn’t get many clients.

I liked the mechanics of the production here: the acting, the set, the use of video and music, even the subtitle screens, all of that. But The Fountainhead as a worthwhile drama, a play for today’s times? No.

Apollo 11


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Apollo 11

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

USA, 2019

HOME, 7 July 2019


This documentary follows the Apollo 11 mission from beginning to end.

As with many documentaries of recent years, there is no overarching narrative voice, something to be thankful for.

We see the days and hours leading up to take-off. All anxiety and fraught anticipation. Then we see the rocket shooting up to the sky and piercing earth’s atmosphere. Next we see it cruising toward the moon and entering its orbit, with the landing craft parting ways from the rocket and floating off (or so it seemed) before plummeting toward the moon’s surface.

For this descent, we learnt that Armstrong’s heart rate (he along with Aldrin was in the landing craft, while Collins stayed in the rocket and orbited the moon) shot up wildly – the human primate protesting against all the monochrome, celestial insanity – but you could not tell that from his speech. He was the same bland good-natured American, calm and collected and cool throughout. I like Armstrong’s blandness, by the way: it shows his brain is completely focused on the task at hand, there’s no spare capacity to charm his interlocutors. There is the historic moment when he descends from the craft and speaks of ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ before going on to plant an American flag on this new-found-land (to borrow from Donne). It ends with the men splashing into the sea and being picked up by the US navy, President Nixon looking on and applauding, as well he might.

All told, this is a gripping documentary, full of quiet heroism and good-natured efficiency and with not a few (entirely understandable) moments of steely tension. At certain junctures the mission could have gone badly wrong. But bonds held firm, errors were avoided, peril averted. You cannot help but admire America, or specifically this America anyway, a nation with a can-do culture – and they did it. They took on a difficult task, one commensurate with their capability, and they delivered. Now, it seems, they are content to do the easy stuff. To settle for less.

Knife + Heart


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Knife + Heart

Directed by Yann Gonzalez

France, 2018

HOME, 8 July 2019

Knife + Heart

A slasher flick, this one, set in France’s gay porn film industry in the early 1980s.

You have Vanessa Paradis (yes, her, the pop star as was) as a film director whose stars (big fish in a small pond) are all getting murdered, one by one. Who is doing it? And what could their motive be?

It is all a bit naff , to be honest. One of those film where you are shown rather too much of people’s bodies and not enough of their faces. But, who knows, perhaps that is deliberate, all part of the film’s style and look. On set there is always a resident cocksucker, for when the actors’ cocks go soft. I didn’t know that but, actually, it makes a lot of sense…

There are other, maybe more interesting aspects to the film, mind. For example, the knife as a phallic weapon, an instrument used to penetrate the flesh. Something which illustrates the irredeemably violent nature of sexual desire. Supposedly.

In the end, though, you have to conclude that a film that looks and feels naff is, well, naff.

Don’t Look Now


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Don’t Look Now

Directed by Nicolas Roeg

Italy, 1973

HOME, 8 July 2019

Don’t Look Now

This is a slasher flick too in a sense, though it is of course much, much more than that.

Don’t Look Now is a masterpiece, in fact: a film that can easily sustain several viewings. Always there is something new to notice and reflect upon. Such as, say, the colour red as motif.

They, Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, are a couple coming back to bloom after the death of their daughter Christine. And even at this point you pause, for the name Christine (‘Christ-like’) is undoubtedly significant. This is a film about death and sacrifice.

One night the couple make love, then dress for dinner. A wonderfully constructed scene this one: tender and wry and intimate and wholly naturalistic. It feels intrusive and invasive to watch them, such is the intimacy exchanged. An unparalleled scene, even today.

Outside, we see Venice, what with its medieval churches and labyrinthine walkways, a crumbling city floating on water. This is winter, so there are few tourists, it is the off-season. There is finality to everything, as though the show is over and what you are look at is a stage set without an audience. People are off-duty, not paying attention. Inclined to be careless. Meanwhile a killer is on the loose.

Most of all, at the close, you are left with a sense of loss. A real person has died, someone who had much to offer the world. The tragedy was not inevitable, for chance events led him to his death. Yet examine them and you will find that it was his helpfulness, his care and consideration for others (making an effort to get the blind sister out of the prison cell, say), that made him heedless of his own care. Blame his Christ-like qualities for his death.