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Michael Coveney: Festival fever in Manchester and the National Theatre

Festival season provides an opportunity to experience a multitude of artforms

The cast of wonder.land, part of the Manchester International Festival
© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

You know it's a good festival when you've been there for three days and start missing it on the way home, although it's only possible to see one big event each day. But as, next week, the names on the Manchester International Festival marquee include Charlotte Rampling, Arvo Pärt, music video maverick FKA twigs and Maxine Peake continuing at the Royal Exchange - as well as Damon Albarn's music in wonder.land - you might need to take a week off. And catch up with the city between shows.

As already reported on WOS, the spanking new Manchester venue Home is up and running in the new development around Tony Wilson Place; I was so excited to see it that I rushed across the main road, heading for the shiniest glass windows I could see and found myself in a spanking new Sainsbury's Local instead. Once properly inside, I savoured an attractive new gallery, five cinemas (showing a mini Orson Welles season and the new Ian McKellen), a comfortable horse-shoe 450-seater theatre (not unlike the Royal Court), a restaurant, café chairs on the terrace.

I like the sound of Walter Meierjohann, the artistic director - the place is a functional fusion of the old Cornerhouse cinema and the Library Theatre (Chris Honer has retired) - except for his plans for another fusion - that of English and German theatre. There's far too much of that going on already, and no-one likes it except a few bloggers and students. I'd much rather Walter fused with France or Spain or even Poland or, preferably, didn't fuse with anyone. I think he should be a re-fuse-nik. But as he's Dutch, and a splendid chap - he did a good job running an Edinburgh "physical theatre" venue for a few years and is an associate at the Young Vic - "fusing" is part of his cultural DNA.

Funnily enough I didn't talk about this with Ruth Mackenzie, director of the Holland Festival, over lunch before our guided tour of Home. She's already at work on next year's festival, planning Woody Allen's Brothers and Sisters with Ivo van Hove's guest director at the Tooneelgroep, Simon Stone, the return of Pina Bausch (more Teutonic fusing) and a new Lars Andreasson opera directed by Pierre Audi, who launched our own Almeida Theatre and now runs the Dutch National Opera, designed by the Quay Brothers. As, in 2016, it's the Netherlands' turn to have the European Union presidency (well, it couldn't be Greece's, could it?) she's hoping her festival will prove a fitting climax.

It's a great pleasure of MIF that you find people like Ruth and Michael Morris (of Artangel) knocking around, both deeply involved with Alex Poots since the inception ten years ago. Festivals are not just about performances, but catching up, running around museums and shops, having lunch (one day with Ruth, another with Michael Billington), even going to parties. The opening night do in the white-tented festival hub, and the post-Tree of Codes thrash in the Town Hall next door, were both fuelled by Selfridge's prosecco served in yellow Selfridge goblets, very nice too, with substantial canapés.

At the first, I mingled lightly and made the mistake of going to bed before Damon Albarn delivered an impromptu concert of three songs. At the second, I was merrily accosted by a leading agent, Harriet Cruickshank, several international artists (including the brilliant Danish designer Olafur Eliasson) and the sister of a London arts editor. The Town Hall, a wonderful Gothic Victorian pile, has terrible echoing acoustics, so I couldn't understand what anyone was saying and soon found myself edging backwards towards the exit on Albert Square.

'The whole country seems en fête at this time of year'

Last week, too, saw the nomination of the new Whitworth Museum along the Oxford Road - in the middle of the university campus - as Museum of the Year. I presume this was a recognition for the redesign - one side of the old Victorian red brick building has been opened out to face the park - not for the contents, for they are pitiful. There's a Cornelia Parker embroidery I quite like, and a Lucian Freud self-portrait I like a lot. The rest is all pop and piffle and kids' doodles, all of which I like, too, but not in a Museum of the Year.

The labelling of the art is hopeless bordering on non-existent (unless you want to pick out a grubby, over-pawed free sheet in each room) and they don't even tell you the opening times on their website, bit of a minus for an institution more stuck on pandering to the community than honouring it with great art.

Luckily for me I caught a tour of the new Whitworth exhibition of Chinese art from the 1970s to now, compiled by the Swiss collector Uli Sigg. The first couple of rooms show dissident artists covering themselves in ink in secret. Then, post-Cultural Revolution, they paint Mao behind bars and renegotiate the landscape in video installations. The wittiest work is a sensual vista of naked hairy buttocks - a moonscape? - disguised as an official mountain landscape. And then Ai Weiwei - the subject of Howard Brenton's terrific play at Hampstead two years ago - excavates his own heritage in a presentation of hundreds of Stone Age axe-heads. "About two thousand of them," said the guide, but a quick count as she waffled on yielded a number well north of 3,800...

The whole country seems en fête at this time of year - Wimbledon, the Test Matches, Glastonbury, Glyndebourne; and I popped back to London to catch the climax of the twentieth NT Connections festival. This season - comprising ten plays, 270 youth centres and schools nationwide - is a miracle of logistics and creativity. Productions from Canterbury and Leyton in East London of new pieces by Ayub Khan Din and Cush Jumbo were truly remarkable, engaging, respectively, with the fissures in the Hitler Youth movement and riots on the streets of Tottenham. Fantastic festival fare, the whole NT building turned into the sort of party the place never quite becomes the rest of the year. No wonder artistic director Rufus Norris, soaking up the atmos with his teenage son, said at the end, on the Olivier stage, that NT Connections was "the most important thing we do at this theatre".

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