Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Review: Margaret Atwood at Manchester Cathedral

The long queue of people stretching out the doors of Manchester Cathedral last night was an encouraging spectacle. Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood evening was a sell-out, and whether people were there because they loved her writing, or because they thought it sounded like a good show, there was no cause for disappointment on either count.

The Trailblazer event for next month’s Manchester Literature Festival was the first performance in the author’s international book tour, with each event doubling as a fundraiser for a local environmental charity (in this case, the RSPB.)

The Year of The Flood
brings us back to the world Atwood introduced in Oryx and Crake, widely acknowledged as a masterwork of speculative fiction. It’s a world where most of the human race has been killed off by a pandemic; where the few people left scrabble for survival in a dystopian wasteland overrun with freakish genetically engineered animals and patrolled by the company soldiers of CorpSeCorps. Most of all, it’s a world where a homespun religious cult called God’s Gardeners farm rooftops and sing hymns about holy pollination, vegetarianism and the preservation of species.

These hymns were set to music by California composer Orville Stoeber and they marked the beginning of the performance. You heard the singers before you saw them, filing slowly into the centre of the Cathedral bearing cardboard banners inked with images of endangered species such as the Natterjack Toad and Kingfisher. The singers, drawn from the Manchester Lesbian & Gay Chorus, Ordsall Acapella Singers and the Blackburn Community Choir, delivered Atwood’s hymns with their gentle melodies and simple harmonies in a straightforward and humble manner befitting God’s Gardeners.

In order to reduce the size and carbon footprint of her traveling posse, Atwood is enlisting local performers in every city, making the presentation slightly different each time as well as engendering a kind of community ownership of the event. The change was refreshing; It couldn’t have felt less like the standard book tour dog-and-pony show.

The real stars of the performance were the wonderfully talented and versatile actors who read the parts of main characters Adam One (Kevin Harvey), Toby (Samantha Giles) and Ren (Samantha Sidall.) They had a challenging task: the dramatic of reading of whole passages fully embodying their character while also filling in as several secondary characters. But they held the whole cathedral transfixed; the narrative spell was never broken. The readings were linked by Atwood’s elegant summaries of the background action, so the audience were able to understand the wider sweep of action in the book.

Still, at evening’s end, when all were invited to stand and join in singing a farewell hymn, several questions remained tantalisingly unanswered. There can’t be many people there last night who won’t be seeking out The Year of The Flood sooner or later. I know I will.

(Photos Jon Parker Lee)


Helen of... said...

Absolutely gutted I wasn't there, it sounds as though it were thoroughly amazing!

Unknown said...

Wow. I feel like I was there. Can't wait to catch up with those books...

Orchard 49 - the community orchard at Seymour Grove Allotments said...

I was there and couldn't see or hear the people reading so was mighty disappointed. Lots of others in the audience were also struggling to follow the reading. Not sure if this was down to the sound/accoustics or the reader's lucidity. It felt like a waste of an hour (rude to walk out) and a waste of eight precious pounds. Most disappoiting.

Sleepless Mum said...

Great review! I loved the event, I was entertained by the hymns, enthralled by the reading and also thought the actors were fabulous. One of the best bits was watching MA having a little bop in her chair to 'When Adam First', high praise for the singers indeed.

OTAGS Orchard - Plot 49, I'm sorry you didn't have a good experience. I did see a few people get up and leave half way through and wonder if they were having the same problem. The Cathedral is a beautiful setting, but is obviously not designed for such events. I can see some of the effect could have been lost if you couldn't see or hear properly.

Margaret Atwood fan. said...

I agree with OTAGS. The only people who had any sort of view of the readers were those lucky enough to have reserved seats. The bulk of the audience were to each side with their view obstructed by pillars and chairs. I could hear lots of people complaining around me. It was a poor choice of venue - surely something else could have been found that was more appropriate.

From what I could hear of the speakers they were excellent - but would have loved to have seen them too. I felt cheated, and for a work that has such high-minded ideals find it odd that the only good seats were reserved for the local dignitaries.

Kate Feld said...

Since these comments have been posted I have also had a conversation with a friend who was similarly disappointed - bad seats, no view, couldn't hear.

I was lucky enough to have a good seat, but it sounds like a lot of folks weren't. This is really a drag.

I think it is a relatively new thing to have an event like this at MCR Cathedral, so perhaps next time the folks at the venue can pay more attention to sightlines and acoustics - maybe less seating would have made for a better experience. At any rate, I'll pass this feedback on to the folks at the Literature Fest.

MLF Blog said...

Am really sorry to hear that some of the audience had a poor experience of the event. When we tested the accoustics in rehearsal they sounded good from all corners - obviously things can change once you've got 600 people in there. There were dozens more chairs than audience set out so in theory no one should have been stuck behind a pillar - I know how frustrating this can be having been stuck behind pillars at events myself.

The reserved seating was for ease of getting people in at the last minute and not necessarily to give them the best seats. I know a couple of the people who left before the end were journalists who had to catch a train back to London.

As Kate says, it's the first time MLF has done an event at the Cathedral so it's really helpful to have your feedback about the logistics and we'll certainly bear it in mind for future events.

Cathy (MLF Director)

Margaret Atwood fan said...

Thank you for your response - it's very good to hear that you are taking our feedback into consideration.