Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: Manchester Sound: The Massacre

Site specific, immersive new theatre by the usually excellent Library Theatre Company. Happening at a secret location in the Northern Quarter.  Unifying two diverse but interesting moments in Manchester’s history: The Peterloo Massacre and the heyday of Acid House. Manchester Sound: The Massacre was intriguing on many levels, and I sincerely wanted to love it. I trooped off to said secret location full of hope and goodwill. But the play just didn’t work for me.  

First, the good stuff. The staging was bold and effective, with the audience becoming active participants in the gathering, whether it was a rave or a public demonstration. It was alarming the way actors charged around the space, sometimes barrelling right through us, which lent proceedings the right kind of unsettled nervous energy. And the space itself is a real find. It’s full of atmosphere, and it has been used resourcefully. 

But these positives, along with a game cast who gave it their all, weren’t enough to salvage a play with a flawed central analogy. Comparing citizens massacred while peacefully protesting for the right to fully participate in society with raver kids half-assedly agitating for “the right to party” won’t wash, and it just can’t be cemented together with broad platitudes about standing up for what you believe in. It reminds me of the time they closed the smoking lounge at my high school and some kids took to wearing Stars of David cut from packs of Camels. The best thing you can call it is na├»ve. But you can’t build a strong production on such a shaky foundation.

I say this with affection, but for those of us out in the rest of the world (and even lots of us who were right here in 1989) the Hacienda just wasn’t that big of a deal. Yes, the music and the clothes were new, but anyone who believed Madchester was going to usher in a new era of peace, love and brotherhood was either too young to know better or pilled to the gills. The trouble is, most of 2013’s cultural gatekeepers came of age then, and their nostalgia for the time seems limitless. It’s like they’re all personally invested in the delusion that their cultural 15 minutes "changed the world forever" and seem determined to foist it on the rest of us.

Compounding the trouble was a confused script, full of flat dialogue and predictable laughs. (“Women can be politicians now?” “The Prime Minister’s a woman. She’s a bitch.”) The action happens in parallel to start, switching between 1989 and 1819, which worked fine. But the moment three Peterloo women inexplicably turned up in the loos at the rave and started exclaiming over the condom machine, I lost the narrative thread. It transpired that they were dead and had come back to haunt the apathetic ravers into giving a toss about current events. By the end of the play, I think I worked out that if they failed, the ghosts were doomed to repeat the events of Peterloo for eternity, but this is mostly speculation on my part. And to be honest, I had disengaged from the play by then.

During its theatre-less few years, The Library Theatre has gotten really good at putting on site specific theatre. But in Manchester Sound, a provocative analogy didn’t develop into anything truly meaningful. Kind of like those totally amazing conversations you have in a warehouse at 5am. Yes, I  know, it all seemed very deep at the time.

Image: Stephen Fewell (DJ Liberty) in Manchester Sound: The Massacre by Polly Wiseman, directed by Paul Jepson, presented by the Library Theatre Company (Saturday 8 June - Saturday 6 July 2013). Photo by Kevin Cummins.


Anonymous said...

Sounds a bit of an odd affair but I'm wondering who are the gatekeepers who have so cleverly misled and manipulated two or three generations of music lovers in Manchester and all over the world into thinking the Hacienda meant anything very much and what evidence do we have that these gatekeepers have anything to do with this production?

Anonymous said...

How disappointing! I still enjoyed your review though; many thanks for it!

Kate Feld said...

Hey Anonymous, I'm not suggesting the Hacienda didn't mean *anything* to music lovers in Manchester/all over the world. Of course it did. I'm arguing that it wasn't as earth-shaking as some folks seem to believe. Where I come from, for example, we all knew about it but it wasn't a huge big deal. And I was a music-loving teenager in 1989.

My main point is that it's a bit silly to suggest its historic significance to the world is up there with Peterloo. Where people actually died, and which led to universal sufrage in Britain, trade unions, the formation of The Guardian, etc. Would you dispute that?

And the gatekeepers I'm talking about are the directors and arts producers, the arts funders, and to a lesser degree the cultural critics who seem to have an insatiable appetite for anything Hac-related. Which is probably why I'm so tired of hearing about it.

Anonymous said...

I had no knowledge of the Hacienda while it was open, and didn't learn about it till I'd moved to Manchester many years after it's demise. So I don't talk of it from past experience.
More often than not I feel that Hacienda legends function a standard bearer for music and musicians in the city today. Keeping hay day memories and folk lore alive is surely part of maintaining our shared (and imagined) cultural heritage, but how do we invigorate the present when we are so fond of the past?

Suzy Prince said...

To be fair, while the play was staged in a way that made it look very much like the Hacienda (the pillars business) they didn't name it at any point. I transcribed tons of interviews for the Library theatre last summer, so I can confirm that they did do their research very thoroughly, and almost everyone said that the scene was centred around many different clubs, not just the boring bloody hacienda. In the programme notes, Sarah Haughey, who was the main researcher and was around back in the day says 'it wasn't all about the hacienda; it was about Precinct 13, Dry, The Dome, Parliament, Home, Isadora's, The PSV, the Venue, the State, the Number One, Deville's...' and so on.
I was living in Derby, about 50 miles away, and was 16 at the time and there was a real club culture thing going on, which I didn't really like as I wanted something with a bit more meaning to it (man). But in terms of the fact that everybody was using drugs, dancing and being hedonistic to a backdrop of pretty tough times, yes, I do think that was happening. Can we expect 16 year old kids to marshall themselves for protest? The Peterloo people were adults, not kids. I liked the link between the two, but I think if anyone came away from the play thinking that there is truly a connection between people being allowed to dance and party, and what happened at Peterloo, well, there isn't. I liked the fact that it might make some more people go out and find out a bit more about Peterloo though, which certainly isn't taught in schools, or wasn't in my day.

Kate Feld said...

Interesting about the Hacienda, Susie, it's good to hear that wasn't all they based it on, though with those pillars they had to know that's immediately what it would conjure up. I agree about Peterloo, I'm way more interested in what happened there and think I would have preferred a more straight-ahead (though admittedly less sexy) production that focused on that.

Anonymous said...

I will let the historians decide whether Peterloo "led" to universal suffrage (which occurred over a hundred years later), but it was a step in that direction, it's true. I wouldn't be crass enough to suggest Peterloo equals the rave scene. Is that really what the play sugggested? I haven't seen it but I would reckon pointing out the links and connections and the differences is a fair process.

One thing the Hacienda and Peterloo have is symbolic value in our city's history. The Hacienda has become a shorthand way to describe our re-birth, or re-fashioning from a once-great but struggling post-industrial city to the modern city it is now. Of course Thatcher wasn't at war physically with the Northern working class in the same way at the authorities were at Peterloo, of course, but she did kill off communities and she did sow seeds of despair and in some ways the Hacienda and the city's re-birth was a fight back against that.

Right now I'd settle for a political revolution OR a cultural revolution. Either would be better than the bland consumerist conservatism we have now.

Anonymous said...

This review looks more entertaining than the actual play. "The trouble is, most of 2013’s cultural gatekeepers came of age then, and their nostalgia for the time seems limitless. It’s like they’re all personally invested in the delusion that their cultural 15 minutes "changed the world forever" and seem determined to foist it on the rest of us." - absolutely brilliant. Dave Haslam comes to mind. If I see another Hacienda-inspired club night, or hazard tape bench in the Northern Quarter, I might have to move somewhere less obsessed with it's recent (mundane) past.

Kate Feld said...

Anonymous #3: (this is getting a bit silly with so many commenting incognito) you make some good points about Thatcher and what was going on in the country in 1989. But for me, the links and connections between the two scenes just weren't strong enough to build a whole play on. But sure many others will disagree. Nice that the play's provoking such an interesting discussion anyway.

Kate Feld said...

Oh and SUZY Prince I'm so sorry I spelt your name wrong! Always doing that...

Dave Haslam said...

Ok, so it's my fault is it "anonymous?" I put my name to a Hacienda coloured bench at someone's request to raise money for breast cancer in memory of my mother who died 30 years ago (it wasn't even my idea). How does this offend you?

I turn down 3 out of every 4 Hacienda style DJ gigs (I've done one in the last 2 years). In 1995 I wrote "Nostalgia is a device created by old people to deny young people their dreams". The last sentence of my Manchester book is "the future is yet to be told". The last words of most talks I give to students is "Do what we did; make your own culture". I get an email a day from someone wanting me to talk about the Hacienda on TV or radio or somewhere and most of them I say no, apart from students who are writing dissertations because it seems more kindly to help them out than to say No. I have never foisted anything on anyone. In recent years I've staged in-conversations with Nile Rodgers, Will Self, Jeanette Winterson and Vini Reilly. Is that me living off the Hacienda?

I haven't seen the play, it sounds interesting, like Kate says, it's provoked debate. I don't particularly like being dragged into this by some anonymous person. I didn't write the play.

I agree with the comment "Right now I'd settle for a political revolution OR a cultural revolution"

I don't know how big a deal it was or wasn't. But the Hacienda is bigger than any of us, a myth that's spun off into god knows where.

I went to Philadelphia last year Kate and met dozens of people who had heard of the Hacienda. I met some people doing an art project on it! I didn't meet anyone who'd heard of Peterloo.

That's not my fault.

Kate Feld said...

Hey Dave, I appreciate your wading in here and responding to these comments.

I'd argue that you were statistically more likely to meet people in Philly who knew of the Hacienda than people who knew about the Peterloo Massacre, simply because of who you are and the kind of work that you do. I'm sure lots of people actually had heard of Peterloo, had you asked them (but I'm thinking you probably didn't, because... well, why would you have?) We all learned about Peterloo at school. Whereas I had to learn about the Hacienda from Michael Musto's column in the Village Voice, an educational resource that probably wasn't available to a lot of my peers. Though I strongly believe it *should* be studied.

Rest assured: I do not hold you, Dave Haslam, personally and solely responsible for the Hacienda-foisting. But imagine, if you can, what it's like to be a Mancunian who didn't live through that time, or who did but didn't identify with Factory/Madchester/Acid House etc. for whatever reason. We're constantly having it pushed in our faces, and after a while it begins to be a bit of a sore point.

But looking at it from your perspective, and reading what you wrote, I see that it must also be a bit of a sore point when people denigrate the cultural legacy of a time and a place and a movement that meant a lot to you and your contemporaries. Peace. I say we all unite under the "political revolution OR cultural revolution NOW" banner. That's a movement we can all identify with.

lizziechick said...

Well Kate that was going to be one of our rare nights back to Manc but may give it a miss. As for Hac or not - thankyou Suzy Prince for reminding me of Precinct 13. the PSV and also the NIA centre and the New Ardri. I just thought everywhere had as much stuff going on as we did back then, took the whole scene so much for granted. It was a great time to
be taking drugs !