It’s good to keep it complex – and other lessons from the Manchester International Festival

As the Manchester International Festival closes, our critic reflects on John McGrath’s first year as artistic director

Jeremy Deller's What is the City but the People
Jeremy Deller’s What is the City but the People
© Jon Super

Maybe it’s because I’m from Manchester that I love the Manchester International Festival. It gives me a chance to go back, to rediscover half-familiar places, to watch a city I left many years ago rebuild itself in vibrant new ways.

But the MIF, which ended at the weekend, also fulfils what I want in a festival. By concentrating on new work, with an ambitious eye, it is always exciting, even when it isn’t. Because that’s the trouble with new work; it can disappoint as often as it thrills.

Nina Hoss in Returning to Reims at MIF
Nina Hoss in Returning to Reims at MIF
©Jonathan Keenan

That being said I think this year’s incarnation had a pretty good hit rate. Of the shows I managed to see over two visits, I felt passionately about Thomas Ostermeier’s Returning to Reims, a brilliantly urgent commission dealing with class, alienation and the fragmentation of society. I adored, too, Boris Charmatz’s 10,000 Gestures, a powerful new dance work which upended all normal choreographic practice, never allowing its dancers to repeat a phrase, pushing them onwards to the target set by its title with surprisingly emotional as well as sculptural effects.

I was underwhelmed by Fatherland, the new show from Frantic Assembly director Scott Graham, musician Karl Hyde and playwright Simon Stephens. It had its moments, but it could have been braver. Yael Bartana’s What If Women Ruled the World was brave but messy, full of ideas that didn’t quite come together as a piece of theatre – though they may do as work of art, which is what it will ultimately become. Cotton Panic also felt undercooked; full of rich history, but somehow half formed.

This is John McGrath’s first MIF, after he took over as artistic director from Alex Poots in 2016. As he, says, "with a festival of new work there is always going to be work people love and don’t love but enough seems to have gone really well for me to be pleased."

What impressed me about this iteration of MIF is the way it has deliberately spread itself into the city, and programmed pieces to involve as wide an audience as possible. This was particularly true of Jeremy Deller’s dazzling What is the City But the People, a communal art work staged in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens which launched the festival by celebrating the people who live there, setting them walking across a catwalk as captions described their lives. It was both emotional and uplifting.
More than 6,500 watched it live; more than 100,000 (including me) have watched it since on the MIF Live website, a collaboration with the BBC, which is another triumph of inclusiveness. Sharing digitally has been a mainstay of the festival.

This determination to stage events in public spaces, and to show them widely online, is all part of McGrath’s ongoing mission to build a wider audience for the festival and its commissions. Other innovations include inviting 50 young artists to produce extra online content, and organising Festival in My House, an innovative programme which invites people to curate their own festival in their own home. "This is all to do with making deeper connections with a wider variety of commissions," McGrath says. "In the long term, it is about transforming the audience. "

McGrath has form in this field, of course. He was artistic director at Manchester’s Contact Theatre for nine years before going on to become the founding director of the National Theatre of Wales. Both jobs were marked by a combination of vision and artistic bravery.

New audiences are, of course, what everybody is chasing. But Manchester does seem to be making some headway. On the way into True Faith, an exhibition of contemporary art inspired by Joy Division and New Order and featuring rare footage of their work, I met a boy who had not only never been to Manchester before, but who had never set foot in an art gallery in his life.

What if Women Ruled the World? at MIF
What if Women Ruled the World? at MIF
©Tristram Kenton

The exhibition was full of people like him, excited and engrossed by what they discovered. Art critics admired the show too, a double whammy that made McGrath proud. In Manchester Town Hall, while enjoying Huan Ruo’s short commission as part of a programme called Music for a Busy City, which placed music in iconic Manchester settings, I met a girl who was thrilled by her discovery of the Victorian edifice itself. Neither of us had ever been there and that sense of a city opening up in front of us was part of the pleasure.

Best of all, however, is the way Manchester doesn’t seek popularity at the expense of ideas. The place has a long history of intellectual endeavour. One of the things that particularly stayed with me in Returning to Reims was the observation that culture and its exploration gave the working class a sense of their own social worth.

That was true of my own time there, steeped in the idea that everyone could go to hear the Halle, or read Dickens, or visit the theatre. These weren’t things for other people who somehow knew the right social codes; they were for us all. In asserting the intellectual rigour of the festival yet opening that up to as wide an audience as possible, McGrath is tapping into something essential.

"It’s always been this festival’s strength that it doesn’t make a distinction between high art and low art," he says. "It just says to artists, 'what do you want to do?' There are always successes and failures within that because that’s quite an open offer. But I think it is important that the festival holds to that.

"People are not afraid of ideas. They might be terrorised by the way those ideas are framed, whether that’s through accent or how buildings behave. But they know ideas are important and worth engaging with. It’s good to keep it complex."

Complexity and courage seems to me a moral for all festivals – and all attempts to embrace a broader audience in the arts. No wonder visiting the MIF has been so inspiring.