15 July 2013

The Masque of Anarchy

Last night was the last Manchester International Festival performance of The Masque of Anarchy.

First, some history:
The Masque of Anarchy was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1819, on the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre. Peterloo looms large in Manchester's working class history-- when the workers of Manchester's mills, some 60-80,000 of them, went on peaceful strike, after years of famine and unemployment, high bread prices and horrible Industrial Revolution-type conditions. The military responded in a somewhat less peaceful manner, charging the crowd with sabres drawn, and killing around 15 people. Many hundreds were injured.

Some of the peaceful protestors were veterans of the Battle of Waterloo, and claimed the massacre at St Peter's Fields was worse, thereby it the moniker 'Peterloo.' It was considered one of the defining moments of its time. It was Kent State.

Shelley, being not a very working class-type, was in Italy at the time, on what I can only imagine was some sort of Romantic writers' retreat. But when he heard about the workers of England standing together to demand their rights, he was moved.

This performance of The Masque was brilliantly Manchester-specific, which is part of what made it so meaningful. The location, the poem, the topic, the performer-- all had to do with Manchester.

The Albert Hall housed the performance. A former Anglican church, it's one of the venues that's been newly reopened for the Festival. It stands very near, if not on, the site of the massacre.

Photo credit: The Manchester International Festival website.

It was performed (beautifully, magnificently) by Maxine Peake, who was raised in Bolton, which is very near Manchester. And in Britain, this matters a lot. Peake is from here. She is Northern. 

Maxine Peake is not only a brilliant Northern actor, though. She's the perfect performer for this poem because she's a Socialist. She supports the Working Class Movement Library, and she has her head on exactly right.

Her recitation was powerful and impassioned. Framed by a giant organ and a wall of candles, her performance took on the air of a sermon. Directed by Sarah Frankcom, she spoke the poem with the whole range of emotions demanded by the drama of the words: from despair ("Misery, oh, misery!") to calm reassurance ("Ye are many; they are few").

The Masque of Anarchy is probably the most eloquent call to nonviolent civil disobedience in the English language. Before I went along to the play, I learned that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. had used it in their speeches, rousing their followers to stand, firm and peaceful, against the violent, crushing action of a state that does not want them to know they are human.

And it was hearing Peake's performance of the verses that describe, fully, what a real commitment to nonviolence means, that made me shiver:

‘And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, —
What they like, that let them do.

‘With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.’

I shivered as I thought of people trying, as they did, in India and in Southern US, to stand strong and peaceful, while their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers were slashed and stabbed and maimed... people trying to expect no better justice or revenge than just shame heaped on their violators. People trying not to even scream out, not to resist.

I thought of Trayvon Martin. All the work the Civil Rights movement never finished.

And I thought about how very difficult it must have been, to convince people that this was a tactic that could possibly work. What true, visionary, astonishing leadership is needed, to convince people to simply look upon the military and police 'as they slay.'

Afterwards, Jonti told me he's never had any religious feelings before, but Maxine Peake, in front of 100s of candles and an organ, calling for workers to stand in solidarity, is probably as close as he could get.

And I doubt Maxine Peake wants to be the leader who finally gets us out into the streets, gets us standing against the banks, the bankers, the welfare cuts and the privatisation of the NHS. But if she did, after hearing her speak last night, I know I would follow.

09 July 2013

It's back!

The city of festivals has struck again, beloved reader. 2 years ago, the Manchester International Festival came and, like all fickle ephemeral festivals, it stole my heart away, only to leave me here, bereft, broken-hearted, with just a fluttering promise to--one day--return.

MIF feels even more ambitious and exciting than last time-- and don't forget, last time, it was Björk, doing her science album. That was an enormous, brilliant, audacious show, full of newly invented instruments and really weird songs.

This year, I was so excited about the Festival coming back, I bought tickets for pretty everything I wanted to see. It was a kind of (very) bad idea because I was seriously brizz-oke back in January, from all the unrepentant ticket-buying I was doing (oh also because I was moving house). But now that MIF is actually here, I'm thrilled. 

I didn't know this before, but MIF is the world's first festival, worldwide, of original new work. Entirely new commissions and special events-- nothing that's just on tour anyway. Such an ambitious, exciting idea for a town that's generally considered to be rather second-rate. Just another reason I absolutely love this place.

I'm only going to blog about things as they finish their runs at MIF, to avoid spoiling. 

Pictures from the Manchester International Festival website

Based on a rather short story by Daniil Kharms, an obscure and largely forgotten writer from the pre- and early post- Soviet era. Kharms hung out with the vanguard of Theatre of the Absurd types, and his stories are full of violence, nonsequiter, characters who can't seem to act, all stuck in their heads and inertia. Some of his stories are incredibly short:

There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears. 
Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically. 

He couldn't speak, since he didn't have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose. 
He didn't even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all! 

Therefore there's no knowing whom we are even talking about. 
In fact it's better that we don't say any more about him. 

This stage production featured Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov, as something like the same character, and it was stunning to watch and really intellectually intriguing. 

The play itself was a stunning feat of stagecraft. A bed, seemingly broken in the middle, forcing Willem Dafoe to crouch into it, its headboard and footboard forming a kind of cage around him evoked exactly the sense of incapacity that Kharm's main character embodies. There were precise spotlights, illuminating objects floating mid-air, changing the objects' colours, lighting up hands and making them seem disembodied. Visually, it was a fantastic spectacle.

It was absurd. In fact, at some points, it was downright bonkers. It was spooky, in that dark Russian way. Watching Baryshnikov pose, with arms up near his head, and let out a piercing scream is unnerving enough. Watching him take one step, pose again, and scream in exactly the same way 15 times in a row is enough to make you hold your heart. But it was also really funny, in a jovial, almost overdone, finger-snapping, toe-tapping tone.  The use of music, from 'Give Me That Old Time Religion' to Russian folk songs contrasted in a way that almost jarred-- but because everything in the show jars, it just seems to work.

And that's why I got really interested in this show, and started thinking of it as more than just something amazing to watch. 

Because I am an incessant researcher (as in, incapable of doing anything without looking up what it'll be like first), I not only read the short story, but I also read some analyses of his work before I went to the play. No one else that I've spoken to about this show had read the short story, so I'm intrigued by how different my experience was to other peoples. See this review by David Hartley for an example.

The show is not actually just an adaptation of one Kharms short story. In fact, it inserts several of his short stories into the general plot of The Old Woman. But the choices that have been made, in creating this production, are absolutely fascinating. Why did they change the last words that the main character said? In a lot of ways, the stage production wasn't like the short story at all.

Interestingly, the stage show, as a sum, is more bizarre than its parts. I'm sure many people had not read any Kharms. They must have left thinking that if an adaptation of his story ended up like this, then his writing must be absolutely off the wall, incomprehensible, disjointed and nonsensical. And that would be a shame. More than a shame: it would be wrong. Because Kharms' stories are dark, they are absurd and they are funny. But they are not nonsense or just a spectacle of words. 

Kharms plays with the Russian canon. For Dostoevsky, a young man goes to an old woman's house and kills her. For Kharms, an old woman barges into a young man's house and just drops dead. But somehow, both characters have to deal with the psychological repercussions of an old woman's death. Who, then, or what, is the old woman really? His stories evoke a sense of dread, fear and the burden of being ineffectual.

And that's where the stage show excelled. Somehow, even though it wasn't very much like the short story, it managed (through the absurd treatment, through the dancing and music, through the disjointed script), to evoke the exact same dark, brooding, strange and funny things that Kharms intended.

A masterpiece.

It's official. The Festival's back.

02 July 2013

I flashed!

Partly because I don't write fiction (mostly because I've never really enjoyed limiting my word count), I've never tried to write any Flash Fiction.

But when some friends (just call them #Flashtag) asked me to take part in their Short Short Story Slam for the Didsbury Arts Festival, I was happy to be asked and to be able to do something for my friends.

So, last Friday night, I competed. I still didn't manage to write any fiction... so, I tried out a whole new genre: Flash Non-Fiction!

We had to prepare 3 stories:
1. 100 words or fewer
2. 150 words or fewer
3. 200 words or fewer

Basically, they set up 5 pairs of storytellers against each other, we read our shortest stories, and the losers from each pair were out. The winners of the most votes from each pair then competed against each other. It was brutal, as half the readers didn't even get to read their longer stories!

I've heard a lot of really great flash fiction since I moved to Manchester, and I really didn't think I'd get very far at all. Who's ever even heard of Flash Non-Fiction?!

To my surprise, I ended up being 1 of 3 finalists! I couldn't believe that anyone voted for my stories... I was floored by the fact that I even got to read all three of my stories. And if I had to lose to someone, I'm glad it was to another Southern girl: Trish Starbrook, who had never done an open mic literature night before, and left us all in her dust!

Thanks to #Flashtag for putting on this great night, and for inviting me to participate. I never would have done it, if y'all hadn't asked, and I'm so glad I tried it!