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MIF 2019 opening night review: Janelle Monae, Idris Elba’s Tree, Bells for Peace and David Lynch’s art


Manchester International Festival kicked off yesterday evening with a huge public participation event orchestrated by Yoko Ono, stunning immersive theatre from Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah, and a stand-out live performance from Janelle Monae.

Thousands headed in to Manchester for the free public event Bells for Peace in Cathedral Gardens, before the full schedule of arts world premieres got underway – with events running over the next 18 days.

Here we review the major events of Day One at MIF 2019.

Yoko Ono’s Bells for Peace

Yoko Ono Bells for Peace
credit: Jon Super

The opening event of MIF 2019 saw artist and peace activist Yoko Ono call on the people of Manchester to assemble at Cathedral Gardens to ring a bell and send a message of peace to the world.

While Yoko herself was unable to attend in person, her rallying call certainly worked. A crowd of thousands packed into the space next to Urbis to stand in solidarity with the messages of peace and love played on a big screen at the free event.

Yoko did, however, orchestrate the bell ringing section of the event via a video message. Thousands of hand-crafted bells were handed out to the crowds, while many also brought their own bell to tinkle along in time with her instructions.

The crowds found some of the instructions amusing, including one to “count the clouds” when all we could see above Manchester on Thursday evening was one big grey overarching cloud.

It culminated in a mass singalong to Give Peace a Chance, the 1969 anthem of Yoko and her late husband John Lennon.

The event was simple in its aim – to unite the people of Manchester in peace – but perhaps a little too simple in its execution.   A lovely sentiment to open this year’s festival, but not quite delivering the impact of previous MIF world premieres. [Dianne Bourne]

Janelle Monae at Castlefield Bowl

credit: Priti Shikotra

After wowing festival goers at Glastonbury last week, the Grammy nominated singer-songwriter, producer and star of the Hidden Figures and Moonlight had Manchester in the palm of her hands when she sang her perfect blend of pop and R ‘n’ B at Castlefield Bowl.

From the funky to the majestic, Monae is hard to pin down. Her look changed throughout the gig. One minute she was a queen, rapping during the daring and proactive Django Jane, calling out sexism with the fantastic line “let the vagina have a monologue”; the next she was bouncing around in spandex with members of the audience singing I Got the Juice.

Make Me Feel was one of her finest moments and as she stood there defiant, guitar in hand, commanding the audience. Janelle is the closest thing we have to Prince right now. Unafraid of controversy, she calls out Donald Trump and speaks up for the disenfranchised and this never feels tacked on, or something akin to car bumper sticker politicising. She means every word. She is a queer black female and the world needs her right now.

credit: Priti Shikotra

Dancing to Pynk in vagina trousers, Janelle Monae can bring humour and a sense of bare faced cheek to her timely messages. Her female band and dancers interacted with their queen bee with passion and a sense of solidarity and sisterhood.

The Spice Girls may have coined the phrase girl power, but this was genuine female empowerment and was intoxicating to watch. What a striking way to open this year’s Manchester International Festival. [Glenn Meads]


credit: Marc Brenner

With Hollywood star Idris Elba its co-creator and having hit the headlines recently because of its off stage conception, Tree was already the talk of the 2019 Manchester International Festival.

But make no mistake: after this stunning premiere, all the talk should now be about the magic made on the stage in this must-see show at Upper Campfield Market.

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah has magically transformed the old market hall with inventive staging in the round, with a snaking, stair-led catwalk that members of the audience may find they’re invited on to.  Indeed, if you’re in the mood for a dance be sure to get here early and you can enjoy a full-on rave on stage before the action starts.

Once the show starts it is hard to take your eyes off the thrilling, emotional and spectacular drama that unfolds in the most mesmerising way.

credit: Marc Brenner

Much of the credit goes to the actors in this piece, particularly Alfred Enoch, who plays the show’s central character Kaelo with searing intensity. Joking about in his London home at the start, he must travel to South Africa to scatter his mother’s ashes while attempting to uncover the truth of his heritage and past from his grandmother (Sinead Cusack).

The production does not shy away from the horrors and complex history of South Africa, but retelling it through one family saga gives it a real and raw emotional pull.

A throbbing soundtrack, based around Elba’s 2013 album Mi Mandela as a dedication to his own late father, is the beating heart to the show’s physical performances.   It really is a must see, and the good news is that some tickets are still available for this Manchester run before it transfers to the Young Vic Theatre in London. [Dianne Bourne]

David Lynch at HOME

credit: Lee Baxter

When we think of David Lynch, we think of dreamlike, surreal films such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, and cult TV show Twin Peaks.

But before becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, David trained as a painter at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and went on to produce a prolific body of work across five decades covering painting, sculpture, photography and drawing.

My Head is Disconnected, which runs from 6th July – 29th September at HOME, is the biggest ever exhibition of his visual art in the UK – and it’s a fascinating insight into the director’s mind.

Photo: Michael T Barile

88 weird and wonderful pieces are spread across four rooms: City on Fire, which explores extreme, dystopian landscapes; Nothing Here which looks at the human psyche and fragility of the mind; Industrial Empire which presents drawings of labour, industry and the environment; and Bedtime Stories featuring more recent works with dark narratives.

David won’t be drawn on what specific works mean, says curator of the exhibition Bren O’Callaghan who visited him in Hollywood, but there are several familiar themes – including recurring characters, and the name ‘Bob’ popping up all over.

The pictures address our collective fear of loss, violence and pain, and the works frequently depict a place where dreams give way to nightmares.

“We’ve been working with David and his team for 18 months on the exhibition,” says Bren.

So what was he like? Was Bren nervous about meeting one of contemporary culture’s most visionary figures?

“Wonderful!” he says. “Yes, I was terrified. But he was very generous, very welcoming, and he thinks we’ve done a great job here in Manchester.” [Louise Rhind-Tutt]


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