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Free Your Mind at Aviva Studios

THE world is in chaos, the Holy Land is in crisis, theatres across the country are being forced to close as crumbling concrete is found in their infrastructure.

How, then, will Manchester’s £240m cultural centre entertain us during this bedlam and ease our worried minds?

With the world premiere of Danny Boyle’s Free Your Mind, a hip-hop dance promenade version of the iconic film The Matrix, obviously. 

We are living in a simulation, but not in the way you might think. In his Republic, Plato suggests that something can be tangible and unreal, if it purports to be something it is not (as, for example, a statue does). 

Sometimes you have to let go of clarity.

Actually, if you were suspicious of all this new technology, The Matrix served as a cautionary tale about our devices overpowering our lives. 

Anyway, in June, the Manchester venue was renamed after the insurance company who – amid soaring construction costs – bought the naming rights for £35 million. 

At 13,350 square metres in size, the building has massive, flexible spaces that can be configured by moving walls to fit any size of performance. Impressive.

Boyle’s Matrix collaboration with hip-hop dance company Boy Blue, designer Es Devlin and writer Sabrina Mahfouz is certainly impressive. 

Sure, it’s prescient; all of us consumers placidly sucking up the trance-inducing pap from the corporate-political complex of the state. 

“Should we be worried that machines could think?” asks a spooky avatar of mathematician Alan Turing, that visual effects company Union VFX created from a photograph. But never once does any of it feel felt or earned; it’s all surface and no depth, a marketing person’s fantasy, not an authentic work.

During the interval volunteer (we’ll come back to these later) white rabbit-headed figures danced with the 1,600 audience members. Warehouse workers marshal us. It’s as much a part of the storytelling as safety measures, I think.

Part two, in the Warehouse, is more startling, with Devlin’s set guiding us through the occasion. London Fashion week on acid. We stand by an enormous catwalk. Narrow screens slide above our heads with a montage of Manchester’s history —millworkers, soaps, references to Joy Division — it becomes overwhelming. Keep your nerve.

Throughout, it looks spectacular. Boyle et al conjure scene after striking scene, their cast serve this material superbly, with miracles of poise and expertise. Their movement becomes part of the disturbing current of the evening.

Most effective, however, is the use of sound and music. Washed along on the surges and throbs of Sandy and composer Michael “Mikey J” Asante, pounding score allows ensemble members to hold our attention with their physicality. They are creators of distilled moments, all of which remorselessly powers the action along.

All the dancers (50, with 28 recruited from in and around Manchester) perform with precision and significant style. They outshine the flashy pyrotechnics, but even they can’t bring this concept to proper life. Yet Boyle is an astute man of the culture, and the second half becomes mesmerising as he starts to utilise the awesome scale of the Warehouse, this space is his canvas.

The grit in this oyster, however, is on the back page of the programme: “This group of Manchester residents have been an integral part of ‘Free Your Mind’, and we thank them for their time, effort, and creativity.’

Goodness me, no. 

This flies in the face of the show’s commentary on modern capitalism: a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Sort it out, please, John McGrath. 

Aviva Studios – four years late and costing more than double the original budget – can crow all it likes in public, then, about the 230,000 people that have already visited the venue since it opened in Summer 2023 — but if truly wants to ‘inspire creativity’ and ‘nurture careers in the arts’ then it should be paying people for their work. They are people who are providing the value so why are they at the bottom of the heap when it comes to getting paid?

The Wachowskis’ 1999 film anticipated – and changed – the contemporary world that we’re trapped in today. And now these are some of the worst of times – but they are also a perfect time for cultural organisations and, indeed, all of us to at least attempt to be better and more fairer, equitable versions of ourselves.

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Factory International, Manchester: Should It Exist?

RIGHT now, we’ve got gas bubbling into the Baltic Sea, a Russian psychopath threatening nuclear war in Europe, a worrying Autumn wave of Covid-19, escalating train strikes, runaway inflation, and a severe cost of living crisis. 

And while financial markets are in a mess, the economy is in a rough patch, too. 

But guess what? Theatre continues to play a key role in the government’s so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The venue will open in summer 2023, four years late and £100 million over budget

Last week I attended Factory International’s Opening Programme Launch (it opens officially in October 2023). An immersive Matrix films-themed dance, music and visual effects experience directed by Danny Boyle is to be the opening production. 

However, news that Factory International itself is £100 million over its initial budget – and opening four years late – will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed this particular story.

Factory International opens to the public in October 2023

Now, Manchester City council will have to cover the extra £25.2m over spend, with £10m coming from a contingency fund and the rest from borrowing. It’s public money: we should know where and why it’s being spent.

Additionally, a council report stated: “The ongoing impacts of Covid-19 – with precautionary measures still in place across the construction industry – and challenges associated with the one-off and complex nature of the design have also contributed to budget pressures.”

But critics, especially those from the north of England, rightly wonder what that extra £100 million could have achieved elsewhere. 

Indeed, it is the largest investment in a national cultural project since the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, thanks to initial Government investment and backing from Manchester City Council and Arts Council England. Still, Factory International is predicted to boost the city’s economy £1.1 billion over the next decade and predicted to support as many as 1,500 jobs. Hm.

Under construction: Factory International

All in all, the 13,350 square metre building includes a 21m high warehouse with capacity for up to 5,000 people standing, which can also be divided by a movable, full-height acoustic wall, and a hall with a flexible stage with a seating capacity of 1,600 or 2,000 standing, as well as other spaces inside and out. 

Alas, Factory International isn’t the only shiny new cultural building opening in northwest England. While I was out and about last week, I also went to see Northern Stage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the beautiful Shakespeare North Playhouse — now open in Prescot in Knowsley on Merseyside. This dazzling cultural venue sits in one of the most deprived boroughs in England. 

Inside the timber built cockpit theatre at the Shakespeare North Playhouse

Shakespeare North is a £30 million Elizabethan-style hilltop venue, built around a stunning 470 seat recreation of a Jacobean ‘Cockpit’ theatre also houses a 55-seat studio theatre, exhibition gallery and performance garden.

The Shakespearean venue – boasting an oak-framed, octagonal, two-level main auditorium – aims to attract 140,000 visitors per year. Businesses are now preparing to welcome a boost for trade and tourism in the area.

Find Shakespeare North Playhouse at Prospero Place in Prescot

Against this backdrop, we have a new Culture Secretary. Michelle Donelan is the 11th culture secretary in 12 years, replacing historical footnote Nadine Dorries. Yet, there is little hope that we can really tackle the divide between north and south, rich, and poor – which all too often are really the same things.

Either way, the Arts Council England’s monumentally stupid decision to move current and new portfolio organisations out of the capital by October 2024 has been created after the government ordered ACE to take £24 million of funding (15%) out of the portfolio in London and reinvest it outside of the capital. It also requires commitment from large organisations working with communities in these areas of low engagement – especially the Midlands and the North of England. 

Unfortunately, it’s only going one way; in a recent update to organisations, ACE said: “This programme will be particularly competitive, and it is likely that we will be unable to fund many good applications, including from those organisations currently in the National Portfolio, as well as those that are not.”

A fool’s errand, given their track record, (a shifting of neglect from one place to another – see ‘Creative People and Places’) but the CEO Darren Henley, also present at Factory International’s Launch, felt confident enough to make this statement. “We need a capital city that punches on the world stage, but levelling up is a bout increasing everywhere else… Within straitened times we have more money from the government, and we are investing that outside of London.” 

The cast of The Doncastrian Chalk Circle at Cast, Doncaster

Sorry, what? Quite how many parsnips any of that will butter in a couple of weeks’ time is unclear. The ongoing pandemic means more organisations than ever have applied for money – 1,730, requesting £2bn. There will be casualties.

Even more alarming, new data raise more questions than answers about failure of this government to reach the poorest areas of the UK. The southeast of England, the most affluent region in Britain outside London received almost twice as much money as the north-east from the fund aimed at boosting deprived areas. The £4.8 billion levelling up fund only delivered £107 million in its first year of operation. 

Crucially, rising costs and inflation threaten key projects with councils handing back money to government, scaling back projects or fund the shortfall of dwindling budgets amid fears schemes could become undeliverable.

The above, of course, barely scratches the surface of the past few years, in which the UK has repeatedly tried and failed to do better by the freelance workforce.

Don’t get me wrong, these two new cultural venues in the North of England are remarkably ambitious and exciting. I think that Shakespeare North will truly transform the fortunes of communities in Prescott.

So, should they exist? I can’t help thinking that one of them should and the other should not.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of bricks and mortar at a time when self-employed freelance workers – the lifeblood of UK theatre- are facing a catastrophic winter.

The recent Big Freelancer Survey showcased ongoing concerns within the theatre workforce, with 16% of respondents saying they were still considering leaving the entertainment industry.

In the meantime, however, decisions about the next ACE portfolio round – guided by the redistribution of funding from London to the rest of the UK into priority areas such as West Lancashire, Wigan, the Isles of Scilly and Preston – are expected on Wednesday 26 October.