We'll have to wait and see - when the full programme is announced in March - if there'll be a commission in this year's Manchester International Festival that more perfectly sums up founding artistic director Alex Poots' tenure. Wonder.land, announced on Wednesday, is a reworking of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in this, the book's 150th anniversary year.
It's also the platform for a second collaboration with Damon Albarn and incoming National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris after 2013's Dr Dee. Combine these stellar credentials with a book and lyrics by Moira Buffini, whose playful Handbagged played the Tricycle and Vaudeville last year, with the calibre of the design team behind War Horse, and you have the potential of a truly memorable swansong for Poots who leaves after the 2015 festival concludes.
The choice to base the opening show of the festival on a piece of writing which so vividly demonstrates the outer reaches of one man's imagination - in this case Carroll's landscape of absurdity and lunacy - exemplifies Poots' own approach to creating a festival renowned for its ability to unlock the theatrical imagination, where artists lead the way into unknown experiences.
Like Alice, audiences have followed MIF's director down numerous theatrical rabbit holes since he poked his head over the Mancunian parapet in 2005 with the Gorillaz: Demon Days trailblazer (the first of Albarn's appearances at the festival). Over the course of four, soon to be five, festivals he's led us through worlds of mundanity, hilarity, sorrow and yearning, and through it all he's brought us perhaps to a more philosophical appreciation of both the potential of the dramatic imagination as well as the potential of the city of Manchester itself.
All commissions have been bold. The new pieces have been risky. Some have delighted: I'm thinking here of Interiors from 2007 in which Johnny Vegas, alias Jeffrey Parkin, took us on a 'tour' of his suburban house - and his current state of mind - and in doing so gave us an almost unbearable performance of sublime emotional simplicity. Others have moved us on an even more visceral level: Steve McQueen's prosaic but gut-wrenching Queen and Country - which portrayed fallen soldiers from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq on postage stamps - comes to mind. Some have been true theatrical firsts: Kenneth Branagh's sword-clashing, sparks-flying Macbeth, marauding through the mud of a deconsecrated church in Ancoats. And on occasions we've been, frankly, stunned: think Punchdrunk's It Felt Like a Kiss or Maxine Peake's coruscating evocation of the Peterloo massacre in The Masque of Anarchy.
Often though, in the course of an evening, like Alice herself, we've felt that "it would be so nice if something made sense for a change." I remember wondering why a live bull had been brought onto the stage in the tricky visual-art-drama Il Tempo del Postino. But that's been the beauty of MIF under Poots: doesn't life ultimately just boil down to a series of complicated tableaux that we only make sense of once the curtain comes down - if we do at all?
The festival's work has been complex, its twists and turns have befuddled and enthralled in equal measure, but ultimately it's been an exercise in bravery. It was initially bold of Manchester City Council to invest not only financially, but culturally in Poots' idea that MIF should be a festival that commissioned new work and collaborations. But in doing so, it held a mirror to an ever-evolving - and necessarily evolving - city. Without this ambitious evolution Manchester city centre would still be the barren, hopeless, industry-scarred place many people remember.
Let's hope that in Poots' absence, MIF can continue to mine an extraordinary theatrical seam, but also, perhaps more crucially, that Manchester's powers-that-be have the courage to allow the festival to become curiouser and curiouser.
Mandy Martinez is a freelance writer who has worked with the MIF marketing team
- National Theatre
- Rufus Norris
- Moira Buffini
- Manchester International Festival
- Maxine Peake
- Damon Albarn
- Steve McQueen
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