By Jim Gillespie
It could be Christmas. Four weeks after Easter and the hills around Manchester are white with snow. And there is something – apart from snow – in the air: the Lord of Misrule has taken control of The Lowry. How else to explain this step – nay, somersault – out of its comfort zone as a receiving theatre to create the Week 53 Festival promising 63 performances by 200 artists over 11 days.
The title is revealing. When I asked one of the festival organisers at the press launch in Salford this week, I was told it was like “an extra space to do something different”. “Like a Leap Week?” I suggested. And this is a very definite leap of faith by the team at Salford Quays. Not a tentative one either, but brave, bold, and fizzing with innovation and imaginative collaborations.
In her introduction to the launch event, Lowry CEO Julia Fawcett stressed the international reach of the theatre, and its broad base of 850,000 customers a year. But as a Salford girl herself, she was equally insistent on the importance of local history and culture, the local economy and geography, and the theatre’s links to the community. This sense of place comes from The Lowry’s status as an iconic building at the centre of a post industrial area that has been transformed from dockland dereliction into chic urban living space. The relatively recent arrival of Media City also places The Lowry at the cultural epicentre of the region. It is therefore no accident that the sense of place, and identity, was made the focus of the festival.
Week 53 is also something of a birthday treat for the Lowry. 16 years after its opening, it felt grown up enough to stand on its own two feet, and brave enough to present some daring collaborative projects which stand startlingly apart from the jelly and ice cream of its usual party fare. Much of which is of excellent quality, it must be said. But Week 53 offers caviar to the general.
The menu includes far too many delights to detail here or to have been highlighted at the launch event. Those of which The Lowry is most proud are surely those it has commissioned itself, including art installations, soundscapes, immersive dance, and challenging theatrical pieces.
Artist Katie Paterson retains her Glasgow accent but is based in Berlin and works internationally, or even intergalactically. Much of her work is about our place in time and space, as the residue of fall out from the death of stars many eons ago. We are stardust. The installations in her Syzygy show in The Lowry gallery reflect this perspective, and she is especially proud of the works commissioned for the Festival, the highlight of which is undoubtedly Totality. Paterson describes this as a “discotheque of the sublime” in which 10,000 images of solar eclipses are glued to a dancehall mirrorball. The effect is dizzying, or as Paterson suggested as we entered the darkened installation area: “cosmic”.
Closer to home, Director Una McKevitt spoke about her own involvement in the creation of 100% Salford, which she describes as “attempting to take unusual perspectives on our reality”. In this case by examining the people of Salford by representing the demographics and social diversity of the city through 100 local people. The telling of the Salford story, putting the humanity into the statistics, is here enhanced by music from the usually highly theatrical Louis Barabbas.
Another special commission is An Anatomie in Four Quarters (5 star review already published here) by Clod Ensemble – a promenade dance performance in which the audience are asked to view the action from a variety of positions around the auditorium, including the stage. Producer Angela McSherry describes the piece as a “visual poem which interrogates who we are and our sense of space and place”.” She praised The Lowry for its bravery in sacrificing income from its largest auditorium to allow a fortunate 200 people to experience the event.
30 Days with the Smiths brings together sound artist Oberman Knocks with Scotland’s National Poet Jackie Kay to explore the experience of local people with the surname Smith. Their stories are married to a soundtrack based on the music of the Smiths, to reflect the real lives and landscapes of the city.
The launch event could only feature a handful of the 63 performances and exhibitions which are crammed into the 11 days of the festival. Many are collaborations which harness the energies of different disciplines in brave and challenging explorations of the festival themes. All keep faith with the intent to be “A Festival for the Compulsively Curious”. That Week 53 may become an annual festival, as Julia Fawcett suggests, offers tremendous promise for the future. With the Manchester International Festival also offering ground-breaking new works year on year, it starts to feel like a new cultural revolution amid the once dark satanic mills.
The Week 53 Festival runs at the Lowry Theatre, Salford, (and other venues for site-specific performances) from Thursday 28 April until Sunday 8 May. More details available at http://www.thelowry.com/landing-pages/week-53/