MIF 2017

Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler // Cotton Panic!

A dramatic soundscape that mixes enigmatic synth, eerie folk music and the percussive thunkings of factory machinery and cotton weavers’ clogs – Cotton Panic! is more of a narrative concert than traditional theatre – a concept album with integrity.

Cotton Panic! tells the story of the 1861 Cotton Famine that struck Manchester during the American Civil War. Manchester at the time was a major manufacturer of cotton garments, and the majority of the cotton came from American plantations. As slaves were emancipated and plantations in the northern states were shut down, Manchester began to starve.

Crucial to the show’s emotional power is the moment when the citizens of Manchester signed a declaration in support of the emancipated slaves, despite the famine. The declaration ends with the words “Onward, ye free men of the north and downward you southern men who want slavery.” In the current climate, there is a temptation to hear the chant as the cry of modern north of England against the Westminster powers that have ignored it for so long. The end of Cotton Panic! even draws parallels with the modern day Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of Donald Trump.

But these comparisons should not be invested in too heavily. The inequalities in our country and our own time, though very much real, are hardly comparable with the Atlantic slave trade. In exemplifying Manchester’s “sacrifice” during the war we risk asserting a narrative about the abolition of slavery in which the white man is the hero.

The message of the show is more egalitarian than heroic though, and by showing the correspondence between the citizens of Manchester and key figures in the abolitionist movement in America, it demonstrates how interconnected the world was, even two hundred years ago. Overall, it demonstrates the need for collective effort in the face of international dilemmas. No country is ever really an island, and society is only bettered by the hard work of soft hands.

- Ciaran Grace

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

The Lancashire Cotton Famine

The Lancashire Cotton Famine - Radio 4

The Haitian Revolution:

http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcV6NTqoyAc

The Emancipation of Russian Serfs - History Today

Frantic Assembly // Fatherland

A middle-aged man swings through the air, arms out flung, singing of the joy he gets from taking pride in his son.  

Another man, lit as if by flames, ascends a ladder and belts out a horrific tale of scraping up the remains of a burned man who had been ‘melted up the wall.’

***

Fatherland is a play about fathers. It’s also a play about making a play about fathers. Frantic Assembly - Scott Graham, Karl Hyde and Simon Stephens - went back to their hometowns of (respectively) Corby, Kidderminster and Stockport to gather stories about men and their relationships with their children. These stories appear verbatim in the play, retold by actors. Familiar tales of pubs, football matches and emotional inaccessibility are woven into scenes depicting the creators’ anxieties about the ethics of representation in verbatim theatre: is it democratising or exploitative?

Although men in general are still vastly overrepresented in theatre, it is unusual today to see a production of just men and of course, this is the point – men do not need more representation but masculinity itself needs to be put under the microscope. It was telling to hear how different audience members reacted to this – a young man spoke about how the masculine energy of the show never felt aggressive or threatening. Yet, for any women watching, the times where dozens of men circled the perimeter of the Royal Exchange seating area and banged on windows or shouted loudly out of sight, may have been received differently. Suddenly, extra actors would join the cast and a crowd of men would appear seemingly out of nowhere and burst out again, as though their energy couldn’t be contained, like the swell of a football crowd.

But what can theatre do to expose or challenge gender norms? Attitudes to fatherhood and traditional gender roles have shifted and relaxed in some respects (one character quips ‘I was a single dad before being a single dad was cool’) yet still society still does not allow men to freely express their emotions. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for males under 25 and men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women. The two scenes above exemplify moments where emotions that couldn’t be expressed in real life took flight (literally at times) on stage in song and dance. One song has the refrain ‘we don’t say the word’ – the word being ‘love’ which is left unsaid, hanging in the air. But through the song the silence around expression is itself given a voice.

Scott Graham writes in the programme that your hometown ‘is your father.’ If this is the case, each of the creators has somewhat rejected theirs for the apparently irresistible pull of London. Their hometowns are looked back on with a mixture of nostalgia and disdain, Simon Stephens’ character claiming to ‘forgive’ Stockport – a joke which lands particularly hard in Manchester of course and a Manchester fizzing with energy, pride and international recognition brought by the MIF.

Fatherland ends with a monologue of introspection and responsibility – a young father clasps a flower and tells how he apologised to his young daughter for swearing at her. ‘It’s never okay to do that’ he says. 

- Nathalie Wright

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

The Ethics of Verbatim Theatre

On the Under-Representation of Women in Theatre - Guardian

Fatherhood is Changing - The Conversation

Men Struggle to Express their Emotions- Huffington Post

Statistics on Single Fathers - Guardian

Interdependence: We Need to Talk

‘In the last year, it’s sometimes seemed that we can only shout at each other these days’ writes John McGrath, Artistic Director of the MIF. In response, comes ‘Interdependence: We Need to Talk’ a series of talks discussing huge topics such as power, truth, technology and change, with the ultimate aim being to foster conversation and dialogue. The irreverent graphics advertising the talk, featuring a neon tongue unnaturally extended from bright blue lips, suggest provocation.

On 8th July, ‘Community’ was the theme to be discussed, a kind of meta topic for the whole event. Perhaps the answer to the seemingly chasmic rifts in society are better healed at the micro not macro level; perhaps the different communities created and enlivened by festivals such as MIF are a good place to start.

In this spirit, the first speaker was Rem Koolhaus (an example of nominative determinism if ever there was one), of OMA - a world leading architecture practice. He is in the process of designing The Factory – a £110m theatre and arts venue in Manchester that will become the home of the MIF. This first talk laid down many of the recurring themes for the afternoon: how do we get rid of cultural gatekeepers and allow in nonprofessional voices? How do we democratise art and get rid of the wrong kind of expertise? How can we involve local communities and have a dialogue with the dispossessed? Koolhaus tells that his OMA office (with workers of 48 different nationalities) aims to ‘unlearn professionalism and increase ambition with an indifference to status.’

Host Jude Kelly neatly summarised a unifying and urgent message underlying a lot of the discussion: ‘We need to do more naming of invisible realities.’ Enter a panel discussion on Manchester Street Poem, an installation that can be found in a reappropriated shoe shop on Oldham Street.  It was a welcome change to see someone who has lived one of these ‘invisible realities’ actually on stage to tell her own story. Joanne Wilson was formerly homeless and worked with Karl Hyde of Underworld and others to create the poem.

And this is how discussion and community starts – by being able to see the words of people who have been homeless and being able to speak to Wilson in person at the site of the poem. ‘Access to art is a human right’ adds Jez Green from the homeless charity, Mustard Tree.

Talking is all well and good of course, but accessibility is crucial. BSL was used but the afternoon was long (2.5 hours) and could’ve done with a break. A sign of an inclusive discussion is one where the audience feel confident to interact and at one point Kelly asked if more women would like to ask a question, illustrating neatly the difference between people talking about creating dialogue, and about dialogue actually being created. One way of getting more women to ask questions is by having more women speakers (there was only one at this event). A reminder that gender is often most salient when it is not explicitly being discussed.

- Nathalie Wright

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

The Factory Manchester - £110m arts venue to open in 2020

What is Social Sculpture?

Manchester Street Poem

Partisan Collective

Jane Horrocks, Nick Vivian and Wrangler // Cotton Panic!

Billed as an industrial music drama, Cotton Panic! offers attendees an opportunity to consider the lives of the 19th-century working class in Lancashire. Building its narrative around electronic music that recalls Manchester’s respect for live arts and culture, the production leverages three projector screens to display larger-than-life images of actors portraying historical testimonies from the time. On stage, actor Jane Horrocks serves alternately as emcee, lead vocalist, and helpless child. She is tasked with carrying the entire 65-minute production, assisted on occasion by a backup dancer and three musicians. For the majority of the show, however, she is on her own. In its content, Cotton Panic! attempts to make a link between the chattel slavery of the southern United States and the lives of Lancashire’s white working class. Based on a decontextualized quote from socialist thinker Karl Marx, it suggests that both were based on capitalist exploitation.

In an effort to humanize narratives of the white working class, the show considers soft hands, the innocence of childhood, and other personal stories. It does this, however, without explicitly undertaking the same process in regard to the black slaves upon which white success was built. Rather, Blackness seemed to me to be represented as a voiceless fusion of features, in which one face becomes the next, as if all black people and their experiences are the same. 

Simultaneously, the show recasts and lionizes the working classes of the time as engaged in high culture, as in its description of a Lancashire family’s prized piano, rather than respecting these communities for their own experiences and cultural forms (the show’s use of clog dancing is a notable exception). In so doing, even as it tries to escape them, I worry that the show falls into two tired and damaging narratives: that white British people cannot consider race except in a sanitized and whitewashed version of history that turns them into heroes, and that one of the only ways black people can be represented in popular culture is as violent or angry slaves.

Cotton Panic! makes some mention of how the white working class (in Manchester, specifically) stood in solidarity with the emancipatory struggles of chattel slaves in the United States. The show framed US President Abraham Lincoln as having begun the US Civil War in a courageous attempt to end slavery, but the reality is that Lincoln wanted to keep the country together and limit the growth of slavery rather than abolish it entirely.

Audiences should be wary of the narrative that Lincoln was a hero who stood against slavery. Historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ira Berlin, and Eric Foner have argued that Lincoln’s respect for the US Constitution, in which slavery was enshrined at the time, surpassed his moral belief that slavery was wrong. Indeed, it was only after slaves themselves escaped in large numbers from the South, and the North embraced their arrival, that Lincoln saw emancipation as a politically viable policy. These historical factors have contemporary ramifications for the relationship between black minority and white majority communities in the US today, reflecting Foner’s argument that 19th-century “hostility to slavery did not preclude deep prejudices against blacks.” 

Cotton Panic! could do better than focusing on supposed past heroics as an uncritical indication of contemporary progress. Instead, what British society needs is a historically rigorous, socially aware, and honest conversation about how its privileging of Whiteness is predicated on a longstanding and continued oppression of political, racial, and ethnic Blackness.

- Asif Majid

 

Links relevant to this diagnosis:

How British History is Whitewashed and Sanitised - Guardian 

On Hamstringing Working Classes - Open Democracy

Chattel Slavery and British Economies - Public Seminar

Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys - The Opportunity Agenda

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Britain - Revealing Histories

Abraham Lincoln’s Life and Presidential Administration: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7487969 http://www.npr.org/2010/10/11/130489804/lincolns-evolving-thoughts-on-slavery-and-freedom https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1992/12/27/how-the-slaves-freed-themselves/7d58b82c-3446-4f96-a07d-52fc868eb960/?utm_term=.9daccb73eb6a

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in A Multicultural Society 

The Good Immigrant