Sunday, 10 July 2011

Dr Dee @ MIF

Image Copyright To Manchester International Festival 2011

2 years ago Manchester saw itself invaded by the international arts community, providing it's landscape as a blank canvas for outsiders to come and transform, however this time it's changed, this time Manchester has transformed itself for the world to see. With great Mancunians returning to help cement Manchester as a cultural haven, it is also a chance for those helped by Manchester to give someone back.

This year sees the return of Damon Albarn to the festival. In 2007 Albarn's Journey To The West began it's stage life at MIF, headlining the festival. This time around his project steps away from the comfort of an existing outfit, and in to an entirely new field, a contemporary English opera about the great Elizabethan alchemist, titled Dr Dee.

Upon entering the theatre one is greeted with an elongated room, cut out to leave a cross section. A plethora of instruments are scattered across the room, from all types of guitars and percussion instruments to unusual sculpted objects, unknown to the western world of music. Unbeknownst to the audience, the orchestra sits quietly below the stage, isolated to an acoustic-only presence, all that remains is a slither of high gloss stage, fulfilling what appears to be the hierarchy of the play, but then the music begins and all changes. The room begins to rise during a procession of key English historical figures, accumulating in a crisp empty stage, sandwiched between the 2 elements of music.

Image Copyright To Manchester International Festival 2011

Albarn and Norriss' have developed a fantastic contemporary English opera. They manage to achieve a new breed of opera, one accessible to a much wider audience, one that keeps to the traditions, but adds a new layer, Albarn and his band.

As the band hovers above the stage you begin to see and hear the magic that has been created. The juxtaposition between Albarns melancholy sound mixed with the perfect tones of the opera singers works to each's advantage. They compliment each other as the performance between them unravels. The billowing spectrum of the opera singers sits perfectly with the sombre tones of Albarn's voice. And it's with the help of the contemporary songs marriage to the English operatic performances that make it so accessible.

The cast perform to an astounding class, most notably the lead performance from Bertie Carvel, and the eerie countertenor Christopher Robson depiction of Dee's mystic Kelley, and help to make the show a triumph. As much as the hype for the show has been about it's writers, praise must go out to Frantic Assembly for their help with the opera's movement. For it was the emphatic characterisation employed through the movement mixed with the inclusion of projection that helped to progress the classical art in to a modern age.

Image Copyright To Manchester International Festival 2011

Dr Dee has emerged as a forward thinking approach to opera, contextualising our wealth of history in a contemporary outfit, without the loss of appeal to the traditional audience, making it suitable for all. Its position and warm reception has added a great contribution to the discussion of the art of opera's evolution. Should it, as well as most forms of art, evolve as one style/type after another or can one thing evolve alongside it's context, disregard for reinventions of an old style, more a progression a single entity. Can a classical art form such as opera survive forever, or should it evolve and contextualise itself more with the now?

MIF Discussion - Should we treat the arts as a progressive evolution or as a disposal form, chucked out and replaced whenever we see fit?

The Day We Sang

The Day We Sang - Copyright MIF 2011

That Day We Sang - by Victoria Wood

Review by Amy McIntyre and Dick Downing

It’s not that unusual to have a community choir, often with young people in it, singing on the professional stage. It’s more unusual for it to be made up entirely of primary school pupils.

Victoria Wood’s play with songs is about the Manchester School Children’s Choir, and its hugely successful recording of ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’ in 1929.

No. Really it’s about how a subsequent loss of sense of joy affected two imagined members of that choir as their lives unfolded, and how they overcame that loss.

Lots of us got to sing as primary aged children. How many of us went on to sing in secondary schools and beyond? And how many more settled into a largely joyless adulthood, with little chance of creative expression and fulfilment?

The Day We Sang - Copyright MIF 2011

VW constructs a beautiful device through which one particular character rediscovers excitement and joy in his life. A boy from an unpromising background loves to sing, to the point that he is put in detention and nearly misses out on an audition for the choir. We have already met the boy as an adult (little Jimmy turned into middle-aged Tubby, a beautiful performance by Vincent Franklin) and see both boy and man anxiously awaiting the audition decision of the choir mistress. The two then share the journey towards the famous Columbia Records recording. At the same time, a shy girl becomes a shy woman, expressing her frustration at being saddled with the name Enid in a classic Wood song along the lines of ‘Let’s do it’ (remember - ‘beat me on the bottom with the Woman’s Weekly’?), brilliantly delivered by Jenna Russell.

The adult boy and the adult girl get it together and rediscover joyfulness. But how many don’t? For how many will secondary school and a humdrum career forever eradicate their playfulness? Mr Gove should come and see this play and realise that secondary education needs to include the creative and expressive opportunities that could help sustain a sense of engagement, teamwork, playfulness - and joy - for more kids. His batty baccalaureate pretty much precludes secondary schools from giving those sorts of experiences across the board, leaving it to the resourceful (and resourced) parents of privileged kids while overlooking ‘a scruffy lot of elementary school brats’.

The Day We Sang - Copyright MIF 2011

It won’t be ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’ that does it for today’s kids (probably!). It might be rap, or pop or heavy metal or whatever. ‘That Day We Sang’ reminds us all that we need joyfulness in our lives. Singing is a pretty good start, and education as a whole can do with a damn site more of it – joyfulness, that is. This show, dripping with nostalgia (for Berni Inns and Wimpy Bars even!) really is about now.

Come on Govey, give all the kids a chance for joy; you know you want to!