As Manchester International Festival sets out its stall, we find that this year it’s not all about the artists – the city’s hidden spaces make a guest appearance too.
“This is very important because it is about Manchester’s past and Manchester’s future,” said Maxine Peake at today’s launch of Manchester International Festival. Standing on a stage set within the darkened, industrial surrounds of the Campfield Market Hall, and talking about her upcoming performance of Masque of Anarchy, a poem that festival organisers describe as “Britain’s greatest political poem”, Maxine Peake set the tone for a festival that feels as if it has somehow come of age.
“Manchester for me is a place steeped in a radical and political history,” said Peake. “And as we go into a dark place politically it is good to reflect on the past and how we might move forward.” What Maxine Peake was alluding to was the Peterloo Massacre, whose 200th anniversary (in 2019) is fast approaching. For an event that was so important in Britain’s march towards democracy, Peterloo is surprisingly little known. But as Peake said: “What happened at Peterloo should never be forgotten,” particularly, she noted, in the context of the marches and protests that have become commonplace over the past few years.
It’s not just about political angst. It’s about spaces that are in some ways as exciting as the artists
But Manchester International Festival is not all about political angst. It is about hidden spaces – buildings and venues that are in some ways as exciting as the artists: the Mayfield Depot, for example, a vast, derelict station just behind Piccadilly, or the Albert Hall, the former Brannigans pub that contains a chapel unseen for decades. The Whitworth gallery is also being pressed into action – Nikhil Chopra will perform for 65 hours straight within the shell of the gallery’s yet-to-be-built extension.
And of course the festival is about the artists, the international musicians, creatives and performers who create work for and of the city: Kenneth Branagh, Adam Curtis with Massive Attack (an event that Curtis promises will be “beautiful, enchanting, frightening”), Tino Sehgal, riding high after last year’s Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern, Hans Ulrich Obrist, John Baldessari, Goldfrapp performing with the RNCM’s string orchestra, Matthew Barney, Willem Defoe, John Tavener working with an all-female choir, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Manchester’s electro darlings, Delphic… the list stretches on.
But back to the idea of a festival that has come of age. There is no doubt that this year’s Manchester International Festival has a more muted feel. The venues chosen – derelict buildings, abandoned industrial mills – purposely allow us to rediscover not only the city but its dark, turbulent and defiantly political history. Political too were festival director Alex Poot’s closing comments. “We are in such difficult times,” he said. “I think for me the arts are more important than ever before, and to cut the heart out of a society is not the way to do it.”
Today’s launch was not just about the celebrity artists and our own, barely-contained excitement. It was about the start of a festival of clever, witty, poignant, sometimes difficult, other times kick-your-heels delightful, performance that cuts to the chase. It reminds us that great art is not a “nice to have”. We’ve said it before and we will say it again: we need ideas, invention and innovation to get us out of the mess that we are collectively in. We need big ideas and crazy collaborations. We need people coming to our city, filling its streets with energy and enthusiasm. We need sparks and lights. We need great art. And in Manchester this summer, we will have exactly that.