Manchester International Festival

This year’s Manchester International Festival is the city’s sixth celebration of new art but the first with a new
artistic director, John McGrath

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As befits a huge celebration of firsts, this year’s Manchester International Festival has a fresh feel about it. Marking the debut of John McGrath as artistic director, after being led by Alex Poots since it began a decade ago, the sixth edition of the biennial showcase of original music, visual art, theatre, dance and performance works represents an important new phase in the festival’s relatively short but firmly established history.

“Manchester has set an extraordinary example, not just to the UK but to the world about what culture can mean to a city,” enthuses McGrath inside MIF’s bustling office. “Back in 2008, when the recession and austerity were hitting hard, Manchester was one of the few places to say: ‘We’re going to keep faith with arts and culture.’ It’s almost as though Manchester has taken responsibility for the great experiment that no one else dared to do, which was: ‘If we invest in culture over a 10-year period, will it help turn around the economy? Will it help make the city centre a better place to live and work? Will it increase its reputation around the world?’ And the answer to all of those is overwhelmingly yes.”

It was also an overwhelming yes when the opportunity arose to take over from Poots as head of MIF. Having run Manchester’s Contact theatre from 1999 to 2008, before becoming the founding artistic director of National Theatre Wales, the appointment represents something of a homecoming for the North Wales-born director and producer.

“I always felt the potential in the city so to return at a time of such confidence as it has now is hugely exciting,” says McGrath, recalling Poots’s parting advice. “He said: ‘Do your own thing with it. Don’t be trapped by what I set up and go on your own journey with the festival.’”

Nevertheless, the core offering remains the same, he stresses – “around 25 big new commissions by some of the world’s most exciting artists.”

Among those 25-plus projects, highlights include the world premiere of Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s performance work What If Women Ruled The World?, musical drama Cotton Panic!, starring Rawtenstall-born actor Jane Horrocks, and MIF-Royal Exchange Theatre co-commission Fatherland, created by Scott Graham, Simon Stephens and Underworld’s Karl Hyde. Equally intriguing are Last And First Men, a unique film and live score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, narrated by Tilda Swinton and performed by the BBC Philharmonic, and Thomas Ostermeier’s politically-infused drama spectacle Returning To Reims.

In line with previous years, music too plays a big part in the multi-venue festival offering, with Sampha, Bonobo, Arcade Fire, Ride and Liverpool’s Stealing Sheep among the acts playing during MIF’s 18 day-long programme, which also boasts a series of gigs curated by BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Mary Anne Hobbs and BambinO, an opera designed for babies.

John McGrath
New MIF artistic director John McGrath. Photo: Richard Tymon

There’s even two works revolving around one of the city’s greatest bands, New Order. The first is True Faith, an exhibition exploring their history and influence dating back to Joy Division, staged at Manchester Art Gallery. The other is New Order + Liam Gillick: So It Goes… in which the group (sans Peter Hook) return to the Old Granada Studios for a special run of intimate 1,000-capacity live shows that will see them reinventing their greatest hits with the aid of a 12-strong synthesizer ensemble, led by Mancunian composer Joe Duddell and Turner Prize-nominated visual artist Liam Gillick.

“It will be a full-on concert but it’ll feel really close up,” explains New York-based Gillick, likening the project to a parallel universe where the digital world remains analogue. “You’ll see how everything works: visually, musically and structurally. I’ve built a mechanical set that allows you to see the different components of the songs as they develop and understand how the music works,” he explains, describing the series of five gigs as an “almost existential experience” that takes the audience inside New Order’s famous tunes.

“That’s a very, very pretentious way of saying that while there will be projections and lighting, it’s all structured by the songs and not the theatrical experience. Things will reveal and conceal themselves in sync with the music. So instead of using a sequencer, you’ll see a number of people break down that sequencer pattern one by one.”

The choice of venue, Stage 1 inside the Old Granada Studios, where Joy Division made their first TV appearance on Tony Wilson’s So It Goes, adds to the show’s meaning, says Gillick.“It’s an acknowledgement of a self-aware cynicism in way – that you go back to where you first became an image, rather than a reality. I think people will be able to share that feeling – that they are more than just an audience. They’re participants in a special event.”

“One of my favourite things about the festival, which I’ve kept to, is that in the brochure there isn’t a theatre section or music section and that’s because most commissions are all or some of those things,” says McGrath, refuting the suggestion that this year’s MIF programme lacks some of the star power that past editions have had, when Kenneth Branagh, Lou Reed, Damon Albarn, The xx and Marina Abramović were among visitors to the city.

“In terms of [big] names, define names?” he states. “I think the international artists that we’re bringing to Manchester this year are the best in the world. Maybe if someone comes from further away, or is well known in, say, Pakistan as opposed to Europe, then it may be more of a translation job in getting people to know that person’s work, but I think the group of artists that we’ve got are unbeatable in their stature.”

The fact that those artists are given an entirely free rein to create whatever they wants lends MIF a uniquely unpredictable flavour, adds McGrath. “We ask artists what they want to do. We don’t tell them or set a theme. And that has meant that we’ve ended up with a festival that feels incredibly present in the world that we’re living in now. You can definitely see ideas around truth, journeys, movement, who gets to rule running throughout the festival. But never once was it from us sitting down with an artist and saying: ‘Would you like to think about this?’”

One of the most pertinent examples of that ethos bearing fruit is Susan Hefuna’s ToGather. Consisting of an art exhibition at the Whitworth gallery and accompanying free-to-attend public performance in neighbouring Whitworth Park, the work was developed over 12 months with local migrant communities and explores themes of separation, gathering and togetherness. “We all carry memories of things that we experience in our bodies, so the idea was to build a performance out of those experiences,” says Hefuna, who was born in Berlin and raised in Egypt. “Most of the time in the news and the media, migrant stories are always clichés and negative news. That’s why it was important that we show everybody belonging together. I hope that it will be a beautiful festive feeling of togetherness across many different cultures and many layers of different ethnicities’ experiences.”

Another of MIF’s free events is Ceremony, which will close the festival with a unique celebration of Manchester’s industrial heritage. The work of Turner Prize-nominated artist Phil Collins, it will see a decommissioned Soviet era statue of writer Friedrich Engels permanently installed outside Home arts venue as musicians, performers and the audience interact with a film of the statue’s journey from Ukraine soundtracked by Mica Levi, Gruff Rhys and Demdike Stare. “I think it will be a really joyful affair, a real moment of coming together and the welcoming back of a local hero,” says Collins, who was a student in the city in the late 1980s and looked back to that time for inspiration when devising Ceremony.

“If you mention 1989 in Manchester, people remember the Haçienda, rave and Madchester. But if you ask people throughout Central and Eastern Europe what 1989 means to them, it means the fall of the Berlin Wall and large scale social change. Engels is a symbol of that because he changed the world from Manchester. What Ceremony proposes is, if he was writing The Condition of the Working Class today, who would he be writing about in an era of zero hour contracts, exploitation of labour, an increase in homelessness and language around job centres and unemployment?”

One thing Engels would almost certainly approve of is MIF’s provision to make culture open to all backgrounds. In addition to ToGather and Ceremony, there are a number of free events, including MIF opener What Is The City But The People? Reduced price tickets are available to local residents on a lower wage. The £12 million festival – part funded by Manchester City Council – drew over 250,000 visitors in 2015 and generated an estimated £38.8 million for the city. It also provides training, workshops and bursaries that benefit the whole region’s creative community.

“Universal access to art and culture is essential if we’re to have a healthy progressive society,” says McGrath, who’s already looking ahead to 2019’s festival and development of the city’s new £110 million arts centre Factory, which will double as MIF’s permanent home when it opens in three years’ time. “For me, what makes the festival special is joining up all these different groups and views of the world into one big city-wide community where the combinations of people, as with the combination of art forms, are surprising, exciting and thrilling. It’s an incredibly rich and incredibly risky programme, but life wouldn’t be anything without risk.”

Manchester International Festival runs from 29 June to 16 July (    

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