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Sarah Frankcom: ‘Manchester International Festival is making the world look here’

Sarah Frankcom will direct Maxine Peake in Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play, The Skriker, which features at this year’s Manchester International Festival . Photo: Jonathan Keenan Sarah Frankcom and Maxine Peake in rehearsals for The Skriker. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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“Alot of things have come together in Manchester recently,” says Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the city’s Royal Exchange Theatre. “There’s a confidence and excitement among artists here about the city being a cultural centre in its own right. The festival has been part of that – made the wider world look to Manchester.”

Company profile Manchester International FestivalThe Manchester International Festival launched in 2007. From the beginning, the artist-led event set out to commission and present new works from across the whole spectrum of performing and visual arts. The festival runs every second year – in 2013, it included more than 300 performances with audience figures estimated at around 250,000, an increase of 10% on the 2011 festival. Around 75% of audiences came from Greater Manchester.

This is founder and artistic director Alex Poots’ last year in the role, with National Theatre Wales founder and former artistic director of Manchester’s Contact, John McGrath, due to take over full-time from January 2016. Poots will move to New York to take on the artistic directorship of Manhattan’s Culture Shed.

The line-up for his final festival features a new musical by Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini, Wonder.land, and Neck of the Woods, a collaborative project between Turner prize winner Douglas Gordon and pianist Helene Grimaud at new arts venue Home, as well as concerts by FKA Twigs and Bjork. This spirit of collaboration, boundary blurring and formal collision pulses through the festival.

During the 2013 festival, Frankcom directed Maxine Peake in a spine-tingling recitation of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, performed in a faded, candlelit Wesleyan chapel. Peake’s impassioned delivery made into one of the most resonant and rousing experiences of that year. Frankcom has since gone on to direct Peake – with whom she’s worked on a number of occasions now – in Hamlet, and for this year’s MIF she will be directing her in Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play, The Skriker.

“It is,” says Frankcom, “a play I’ve always really loved.” Frankcom shares an interest with Peake in making work “about change and political action”. This play has become “prophetic about climate change and environmental crisis. It kind of feels like it was written as a warning. But this is the world that we now live in”.

FKA Twigs will perform at the festival. Photo: Dominic Sheldon
FKA Twigs will perform at the festival. Photo: Dominic Sheldon

Collaboration, she says, is a vital part of this particular play, with Churchill anticipating new modes of making work. “It’s an expression of how a choreographer, a director, a sound designer, a lighting designer, a composer, can make something – it’s a play that looks forward to the way we make theatre now. The division between those roles has become blurrier.”

Music is incredibly important to this process: The Skriker will feature specially commissioned music by Nico Muhly and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons, he with a voice capable of melting souls).

“I think cross-art form collaboration is quite Manchester. What the festival does is provide a context to make that happen. MIF has always given artists space to work in the ways they can’t normally work and support projects that maybe don’t have a natural home or platform. It’s really important for the great artists who are making work in Manchester all through the year to see their work standing shoulder to shoulder with the big names who come in and make work for the festival. It’s exciting.”

The Skriker is a very challenging role for an actor, and that need for challenge, to push one another creatively, sits at the heart of Frankcom and Peake’s relationship. “It’s about daring each other,” she says. “The Skriker is a shape-shifter, a mythic ancient creature who morphs and changes. It’s not like anything Max has done before.”

All their work together, she says, “has been driven by a quite urgent need to get something off our chests”. With The Masque of Anarchy “we believed in what it was saying and we wanted to find the most visceral way of stirring people – I would say the same thing was true of Hamlet”. She hopes, too, that will be the same with The Skriker. “It has to get you in the heart. The play is like a kind of spell. It’s got an aftertaste. It’s hard to fix it with meaning moment by moment. It’s an experience. It gets inside people, it stalks the subconscious.”

Tom Basden, who wrote The Crocodile, will perform as part of the Invisible Dot Cabaret night. Photo: Zoe Barling
Tom Basden, who wrote The Crocodile, will perform as part of the Invisible Dot Cabaret night. Photo: Zoe Barling

In the spirit of being fully cross-form, this year’s MIF has a comedy programme curated by the King’s Cross-based independent production company, The Invisible Dot, helmed by Simon Pearce. “About 18 months ago MIF invited us to take up residency in their Festival Square space for the duration of this year’s festival,” Pearce explains. “It was a very open brief. We felt the most exciting interpretation would be to take several productions to reflect the multiple programmes of work The Invisible Dot operates; hence a theatrical stage show, a solo comedian’s new show and a compilation show.”

Tom Basden’s play The Crocodile – based on the Dostoevsky short story and directed by Ned Bennett, fresh off the success of Anna Jordan’s Yen, with a cast including The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird – will form the centrepiece of the Invisible Dot programme, but Adam Buxton will also be performing new material and there will be a late night Invisible Dot Cabaret featuring comedians including Nick Mohammed and Liam Williams.

Basden’s past play, Holes, was also produced by the company. “We have ongoing relationships with many artists and those involved in the MIF collaboration are among whom we work with most frequently and are, to our mind, the best people to create work which represents the artistic ethos of the company: bold, innovative, funny.”

1526Simon-Bird
The Inbetweeners’ Simon Bird will star in The Crocodile, which will form the centrepiece of the Invisible Dot programme

Again collaboration is central to the process. “With plays and musicals we are generally very involved early on, conceptually. In the case of Tom Basden and The Crocodile, we identified the Dostoevsky story as ripe for adaptation, took it to Tom and provided broad conceptual steers on the first draft. After which, with the course of the project broadly established, we are very happy to let the writer and director pretty much get on with it, and take a more passive supporting role; this has been the case with The Crocodile and subsequently Bennett has been so helpful and has provided Tom with rigorous and insightful script feedback.”

As a company, The Invisible Dot is interested in intersection – in the place where theatre meets comedy. “A significant part of the company’s plan moving forward is to create stage shows like The Crocodile. Our work at our King’s Cross venue, at the Edinburgh Fringe and on tour nationally means we remain closely connected with successive waves of sensationally clever and talented comedy writers and performers.

“The idea behind a show like The Crocodile is to connect this extraordinary comedy talent: writers like Tom and performers like Simon [Bird], Ciaran [Owens] and Marek [Larwood] with similarly brilliant theatremakers like Ned Bennett and Fly Davis. This is the sort of show I want to go and see and that we intend to continue making.”

The 2015 Manchester International Festival runs from July 2-19

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