Mostly MIF 2023 part 1 (a 25th birthday post)
Simian Substitute Site for August 2023: Junk Monkey

Mostly MIF 2023 part 2

Relax, Australians, you appear to be irreplaceable. [photo by The BBG]Let’s start the second part of our MIF 2023 review (part one’s here) with a visit to Festival Square, the public face of the event. For the first decade or more, it was in Albert Square, the huge open space outside the town hall. But in 2021, the town hall was undergoing a massive refurbishment (it's still going on in 2023) and Albert Square was closed. So they moved it out to a space close to the cathedral, which had the benefit of still being relatively on the beaten track. We were doing social distancing back then, which meant there were often queues to get in, and occasional hiccups like the notorious Twat Island Incident. But it still felt like a big social hub where festivalgoers and the general public could mingle.

From now on, it looks like Festival Square is going to be in the space directly underneath Aviva Studios. It has its good points and its bad points: the robot beer dispensing machines that ejaculate pale ale out of the side if you haven’t lined up your glass in there perfectly could potentially fall into either category.

The big problem with Festival Square is, I suspect, going to be the location. Nobody’s going to accidentally wander into it: even the massive crowds just down the road for Sounds Of The City in Castlefield Bowl don't seem to be considering it as an after-gig venue. I believe it's still possible to walk around this city and not be aware that a festival's going on, so the lack of a big free ongoing event slap bang in the middle of town isn't going to help that. That aside, having it next door to Aviva has its own advantages, notably the availability of non-disgusting indoor toilets. And there’s plenty of stuff going on there in terms of food and drink, including the aforementioned robobarstaff, and some nice canalside views if you just fancy a sit down. (Though during the late night sessions, there’s a man whose sole job is to shoo people away from the canalside views so they don’t have to fish pissed people out of the canal.)

As usual, our main interaction with the Square is on the Saturday night, when we head over for a couple of beers and a wee dance. Dave Haslam had already done his slot a week earlier, and no Mr Scruff this time round, so we put ourselves on the hands of The Ruf Dug & Lupini Experience, run by a couple of NTS Radio DJs. We get to see about half an hour of one of them – not sure which, but he manages to do some unexpectedly groovy things with Wings’ 1985 – and a full set by guest Giovanna, who does the job just fine.

It was easy to guess what the hot ticket in terms of theatre would be this year. They marks the fourth time that director Sarah Franckom and actress Maxine Peake have collaborated for MIF. The first time was in 2013, when they staged a reading of The Masque Of Anarchy in the newly-reopened Albert Hall. A decade later, They takes a similar approach: Peake performs a pre-existing text with only the slightest amount of assistance from lights and sound, in a visually stunning location. Based on Kay Dick’s long-forgotten 1977 novel, it escalates through an accumulation of detail into the depiction of a literal culture war. Books disappear from libraries overnight: works of art are removed from galleries. And when they can’t do any more to suppress art, they turn to the artists.

On paper, setting a piece with this subject matter inside the John Rylands Library is inspired. Standing in the balcony area, looking down across the full length of the old reading room, it’s a fabulously atmospheric backdrop. One problem, though: libraries aren’t generally renowned for their acoustics. Frankcom’s tried to fix the problem with microphones, but it’s still the case that when Peake’s at one end of the long room and you’re at the other, some people are going to have problems hearing the words, which are pretty much all we’ve got. But if you can pick out the words, this is a beautifully slow build of a story, starting gently and cranking up the unease in a series of vignettes. Peake knocks it out of the park, as she always seems to regardless of the material.

Ryuichi Sakamoto: to infinity, and beyondMeanwhile, over in the more traditional theatre space at Home, there’s a less traditional piece of theatre. All Right. Good Night. is credited to the German theatre group Rimini Protokol, written by its director Helgard Haug and featuring a lot of music by Barbara Morgenstern. It’s partly the story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished into thin air in March 2014: we follow the investigation, the conspiracy theories, and the agony of the passengers’ families as seven years go by with no solution to the mystery. Intertwined with this is Haug’s own agony over this same seven year period, as her father gradually succumbs to dementia.

What’s untraditional is the way in which this story is told – it’s projected line-by-line as written text onto a stage where half a dozen musicians are performing a live score (and also participating in a visual counter-story that plays alongside the other two). I imagine there’s a school of thought that would suggest that if people wanted to experience a story like this, they’d buy a fucking book. But somehow, this actually works as theatre: the communal experience is no less potent, even though it largely consists of you silently reading text for a couple of hours alongside several hundred other people. The stories intertwine perfectly, and emotionally resonate off each other in ways you wouldn't expect. The only flaw is a Lord of the Rings style pileup of scenes towards the end which feel like they’re an ending, but then go off down another tangent. Rimini Protokol only have themselves to blame for bringing up the lights at the very end, only to find the audience sitting there in silence for a good fifteen seconds not knowing if they should clap or not.

The tickets went on sale on March 30th for Kagami, an event featuring Japanese music legend Ryuichi Sakamoto. His death was announced a couple of days later, although it turns out that he’d actually passed on March 28th. To be fair, this outcome was always on the cards. Sakamoto had been ill for a few years, and had come up with a plan to use virtual reality as a way of keeping on giving concerts well after he’d gone. He even jokingly talks about it in a bit of intro text that’s the first thing you see as you enter Versa Studios: “This virtual me will not age, and will continue to play the piano for years, decades, centuries… Ah, but the batteries won’t last that long.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to know how you’re going to feel as you enter a piano recital by a dead man.

That uncertainty drops off as you walk into a holding area featuring a short video of Sakamoto running around various locations gathering sounds, and having a glorious time doing it. At one point, he taps some finger cymbals while inside an ice cave, and his face lights up in a manner that reminds you of nothing so much as Bob Mortimer when he’s just caught a fish. And then we move next door for the main event: sitting in a circle in an empty room, we put on a VR headset each, and suddenly Sakamoto’s in the middle of the room playing piano versions of some of his most famous tunes.

We’re encouraged to get out of our seats to view the performance from different angles, and the effect is deeply strange. Sakamoto is always in view through your goggles no matter who’s standing in front of you, and the other inhabitants of the room fade out into vague shadowy forms. It takes a while to get used to the idea that the shadowy people could hurt you if you bumped into them, while the solid looking figure in the middle isn’t there at all. In the introduction, we’re warned that the tech isn’t perfect, and indeed Sakamoto himself is a little lo-res, looking like a Pixar version of himself. But he’s artfully placed inside a series of digital backdrops, the most spectacular of which accompanies his best piece of the night, the theme to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. (Dammit, don’t make me cry when I’m wearing a VR headset.) A glorious tribute to the man, though it makes me sad that at the end he just stops, as if he didn’t want to say goodbye.

Lemn Sissay IS God. It's more his flood than Noah's, to be honest.The other music events we catch this year are in the scuzzy environs of Mayfield Depot, which is the last place you’d probably think of to hold a pair of orchestral concerts. But here we are. To be fair, Anna Meredith is notorious for straddling the line between art music and pop, so an orchestra show that feels like a gig is pretty much what you’d expect. She’s here to perform the whole of her 2019 album Fibs with the Royal Northern College of Music’s Festival Orchestra, and to keep the local theme going the first half is dedicated to various RNCM alumni doing short sets. It’s a right old mixed bag, from a DJ set by EDM musician Norrisette to a blistering performance by Beatriz Carvalho of Meredith’s Axeman, in which she recreates a full-on fretwanking electric guitar solo on a massively overamplified bassoon. (Here's a video of it being played by a man, which is somehow less interesting.)

It's worth noting that all of the support acts are units of between 1 and 4 people. Because then we move onto a full orchestra playing alongside a five-piece rock band, and that’s where the problems start. It takes two whole numbers before everyone concerned gets the sound balance right, which is frustrating because the first two are my favourites from the album. The thunderous polyrhythmic attack of Sawbones becomes a loud sonic mush, while Inhale Exhale – one of Fibs’ vocal tracks – manages to get the orchestra and band working together while losing almost all trace of the vocals. Happily, from that point onwards the balance is pretty much spot on. Fibs is very much a see-saw of an album, alternating conventional pop songs with experimental instrumentals, and the contrasts are still there but never feel jarring at any point. Except possibly when we get to the encore, where Meredith performs I’m Still Standing, grinning like a madwoman as the lyrics scroll up on the screen behind her for the audience to sing along.

The other piece we catch at Mayfield is more traditional: Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood, his community opera designed to be performed by a large group of non-professionals in (as we're told in the introduction) anything other than a traditional concert hall. So I guess Mayfield works just fine this time. It’s the final show of our MIF weekend, and we’re here for personal reasons – some four-and-a-bit decades ago, my school gave a performance of the opera, under its proper title of Noye's Fludde. Traditionally, the animals on Noah’s ark are represented by as many kids as the production can lay its hands on, dressed in rudimentary costumes. My school ran to an ark of roughly a few dozen (including me), while Manchester Collective’s production here has 180.

As the opera progresses, it strikes me that the animals don't get to go on stage until about halfway through, meaning that I probably haven't seen the first half before today. I’m definitely taken by surprise by how horrible Mrs Noah is at the start, taking the piss out of Noah’s flood warnings while knocking back the prosecco with her ‘gossips’. (“Who wrote this script, Jimmy McGovern?” asks The BBG, who always enjoys a good callback.) Also, I certainly don’t remember the music being this richly orchestrated, so it’s quite possible we just had our music teacher on piano to cover over our squeaky voices.

But once the kids start piling in two by two from the back of the auditorium – a foolproof ‘ahhhh’ moment if ever there was one – it all starts coming back to me again. The glorious moment at the height of the storm when Britten pulls out For Those In Peril On The Sea is enhanced by a simple bit of stagecraft: a couple of people in the audience stand up holding lanterns aloft. The audience also gets lyric sheets to sing along with the couple of bits everyone knows, so by the time we get to the big finish (“it’s an eight-part canon, you know,” I say to anyone who’ll listen) I’m fully back in my teens again.

In the gaps between shows, we made a couple more new discoveries - breakfast at Smithfield Social, tapas at El Gato Negro, Polish food at Platzki, handmade chocolate courtesy of Dormouse Chocolates, and the perfect blend of craft beer and Hong Kong street food at Harcourt in Altrincham. But the shows themselves were a fine collection, with Kagami, All Right. Good Night. and This Entry my standouts in terms of music, theatre and art respectively. If they can find a more confident way of using the space in and around the Aviva, MIF 2025 could be even better. So I guess I’ll see you then, then. Being a monkey, and all.


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