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.
It's official. The Festival's back.