Recovery position

As it gets back on its feet, the Northern arts sector is set to subvert polite behaviour, cast a female lead in Faust and take some hilarious liberties with the Bard

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It’s been almost three years since venues closed their doors to the public and while the arts industry has made a tentative return over the last 12 months, the deep impact of the pandemic has been felt. But with a boost in Arts Council funding to areas starved of culture, regeneration projects, new venues and ambitious events programmed, could 2023 be the arts comeback year?

In Leeds, certainly.

“Our Year of Culture is designed to wake up our senses and reveal our city in brand new and surprising ways – in ways perhaps that you never expected or noticed previously,” says creative director Kelly Thiarai.

The year will be a three-part act of storytelling. “Awakening” is the theme for part one, from January to April. “Inspired by the artist in all of us and the hidden stories of the city,” Leeds itself will be both muse and backdrop to an original and extensive programme.

The opening ceremony (7 Jan) features Simon Armitage and Corrine Bailey-Rae among others at Headingley Stadium. Many tickets to the event have been exchanged for contributions of artwork for a city-wide public exhibition called Waking The Artist, while a bold new public artwork, Making a Stand, by renowned artist Michael Pinsky and environmental architects Studio Bark, will be on display in the city centre. There’s a big programme celebrating literature, theatre, film, fashion, music, dance and visual art.

“We know that our creative talent rivals anywhere in the country, and Leeds 2023 will give people a fantastic opportunity to express themselves, all while boosting our local economy,” says Tracy Brabin, mayor of West Yorkshire.

Up the road in Wakefield, Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s 2023 programme “explores the role of play, making and experimentation in our creative lives”, according to director Clare Lilley. “We’re bringing some of the most vital artists to our corner of the UK, sculptures that subvert polite behaviour, a towering, fierce installation, and irreverent ceramics.”

Subverting polite behaviour is the first major UK museum exhibition by one of Austria’s most prominent artists, Erwin Wurm (Underground Gallery and Bothy Garden from 10 June), including painting, photography, video, drawings and a number of large sculptures made especially for YSP.

The irreverent ceramics are made by former student of Sheffield Hallam Lindsey Mendick (Weston Gallery, April-Sept), who creates an immersive installation that excavates her own memories, the history and myths of the Bretton Estate – home to YSP – and television and cultural experiences from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

The towering sculpture can be viewed from March – a new five-metre high piece that will be housed in the park’s chapel. Made by Brooklyn artist Leonardo Drew, it will be constructed on site from shards of painted and violently torn materials, appearing like an explosion held in time within this contemplative space.

“There’s nowhere in the world quite like YSP – it’s a sanctuary, a place of inspiration, a place to learn, and a place to revel in art and nature,” says Lilley.

Following Hannah Starkey’s photographic exhibition In Real Life*, the Hepworth Wakefield will present Barbershop by Birmingham-Jamaican artist Hurvin Anderson. He first painted a Birmingham barbershop in 2006 and over the last 15 years has repeatedly reworked the same space in a multitude of ways.

The exhibition explores key painting styles, shifting from figuration to abstraction and experimenting with the classic genres of still life, landscape and portraiture, while exploring memory, identity and nationhood.

John Ruskin’s Sheffield connections are once again celebrated in the city that houses his collection, but in Comes The Flood (Millennium Gallery, Jan-June), curators consider the future in the context of environmental change. Objects from Sheffield’s major floods in 1864 and 2007 and artworks depicting Venice are re-imagined as fragments from cities destroyed by the rising waters caused by climate change. That exhibition will be replaced in the summer with a pragmatically-titled touring exhibition from the National Gallery. Dutch Flowers explores the development of the artistic movement from the early 17th century to its blossoming in the late 18th century, providing a welcome burst of summer colour between June and September.

Whether or not the English National Opera moves north to Manchester anytime soon, there’s plenty of cultural activity to tide the city over. Factory International – the new arts centre home to Manchester International Festival – opens in June with You, Me and the Balloons, an immersive environment of inflatable artworks created by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Giant dolls, spectacular tendrilled landscapes and a vast constellation of polka-dot spheres will make for a psychedelic introduction to the new space.

The Whitworth celebrates the start of the year by delving into its collection through a queer lens. (Un)Defining Queer (from 26 Jan) is an exhibition including work by Derek Jarman, Dame Ethel Walker, David Hockney and many other artists that seeks to redress historic omissions of queer representation in museum practice.

In June it presents the first major exhibition of its Albrecht Dürer collection, highlighting the ingenuity and skill with which the artist, a leading figure of Europe’s print revolution, represented his Material World – the name given to the exhibition.

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After a restrained 2021 edition, the UK’s largest contemporary visual arts festival, Liverpool Biennial, is turning 25 this year and the theme is aptly uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things. This isn’t a direct reference to what the arts have been through in the last few years, however. In the isiZulu language, uMoya means spirit, breath, air, climate and wind, and the festival is positioning itself as a call for “ancestral and indigenous forms of knowledge, wisdom and healing”.

“I am interested to see how the city has established itself historically, how it sustains itself in this moment and how it imagines its future,” says Khanyisile Mbongwa, the Cape Town-based curator of the Biennial. She’s invited more than 30 international artists and collectives to engage with the uMoya theme before bringing their work to Liverpool and taking over historic buildings, unexpected spaces and art galleries. The programme of free exhibitions, performances, screenings, community events, learning activities and fringe events runs over 14 weeks from June.

Tate Liverpool is a key venue for the Biennial and has chosen to wait until the festival finishes in September to begin an ambitious transformation of its home on the Royal Albert Docks, led by 6a architects, who have a track record of reworking historic buildings. The work is being funded by a £10 million Levelling Up Fund grant. While it’s underway the gallery will stage pop-up projects and collaborative programmes elsewhere in
the city.

Meanwhile, the 156-year-old Playhouse theatre on Hope Street has the support of the city council, city region and Liverpool BID for a refurbishment of the theatre and surrounding Williamson Square. The theatre will still be putting on a good show, however, including a new version of The Beekeeper of Aleppo (1-11 March and moving to Salford in April) and a 40th anniversary production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (3-25 March). Following Marlene, a career-driven woman in the 1980s, the play examines women’s roles in society and Churchill is allowing the creative team, led by director Subs Das, to transport the action to Liverpool with a Black actor in the lead role. It promises to be provoking and politically charged.

There’s a homecoming for both Manchester playwright Sam Steiner and Northern actor Jenna Coleman in March as the Manchester Opera House hosts the only Northern dates of West End play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons (21-25 March), a funny and provocative rom-com set in a world where we are limited in the amount of words we are allowed to say in our lifetime.

There is a host of other big touring plays coming to the region, starting with the National Theatre adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane (currently at the Lowry, Salford, until 8 Jan, and visiting Bradford, Liverpool, Sheffield and Stoke). It’s a fantastical story of time travel, myth, friendship and survival.

Ian McKellen and John Bishop are offering panto all year round with the touring production of Mother Goose. McKellen plays the titular character and Bishop is her husband Vic. Together they run an animal sanctuary for waifs and strays – a wholesome life until a magical goose comes a-knocking and fame and fortune threaten to get the better of them. The farcical family show comes to Sheffield and Liverpool in February.

If musicals are your thing notable arrivals are the adaptation of hit Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard (Feb-June in Bradford, Stoke, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds) and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (Liverpool in Feb and Bradford in April).

Among exciting shows produced by Northern theatres is the first regional non-replica production of Boublil and Schönberg’s Miss Saigon – an epic love story in the last days of the Vietnam War – which will be staged at Sheffield’s Crucible in July and August. It will be interesting to see how the production tackles the problematic stereotypes of the original that were very much at the forefront of Bruntwood Prize winner Kimber Lee’s mind when she penned Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play (24 June-22 July, the Royal Exchange, Manchester). It follows Kim as she tries to take control of her own narrative by smashing through a hundred years of bloody narratives that all end the same way.

Before that though the Royal Exchange opens its season with joint artistic director Bryony Shanahan’s vision for David Eldridge’s Beginning (16 Feb-11 March). Seen in Manchester for the first time following its successful National Theatre and West End run in 2018, this tender, funny and hopeful two-hander is a celebration of the unexpected and a delightful observation of meeting someone for the first time.

In Chester, the Storyhouse presents an original reimagining of the Legend of Faust, who sells his soul to the devil in return for unlimited knowledge and pleasure, only to squander both. Faustus: That Damned Woman (3-18 Feb) features a female lead and is written by award-winning playwright Chris Bush, and is staged throughout February.

Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake has a musical adaptation of Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris’s best-selling book The Lost Spells (24 May-3 June), in which a girl with no name finds a magical book of spells that conjures up a wild world.

Home in Manchester puts on a new production of Song From Far Away about a man who returns home from New York to Amsterdam and an estranged family and forgotten relationships – written by Olivier Award winner Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel, and starring Will Young. And at Bolton Octagon in February Les Dennis and Mina Anwar stage Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine. The funny and light-hearted family drama follows the Crompton family as they struggle to cope with the ups and downs of life in 1960s working-class Bolton.

Finally, the new Shakespeare North Playhouse has announced its first two productions for 2023 celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s First Folio – the first collection of Shakespeare’s work, collated and published in 1623. The Comedy of Errors (More or Less) is a co-production with Stephen Joseph Theatre (3-25 March) adapted by Elizabeth Godber and Nick Lane. It follows an actor from Lancashire as he arrives in a Yorkshire coastal town to perform his magnificent one-man show only to find there’s no audience – everyone’s booked for a talent show across town starring the twin brother he’s never met.

The Book of Will (19 Oct-11 Nov) is co-produced with Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch and Octagon Theatre Bolton and adapted by Lauren Gunderson. Shakespeare has barely been dead three years when a pirated Hamlet rip-off hits a stage near the Globe Theatre. His old acting troupe friends are livid. To save Will’s works for the ages, they hatch a near-impossible plan to collect his words on paper, setting them off on a bonkers race against time through London.

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