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Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. review at Old Granada Studios, Manchester – ‘a space for reflection’

Scene from Quarantine's Summer, 2014 production. Scene from Quarantine's Summer, (2014). Photo: Simon Banham
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The first thing that strikes you about Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring. is the scale. It’s almost eight hours long altogether. It’s got more people on stage than an opera. And it’s performed in one of the vast, hangar-like sound stages of the Old Granada Studios, where Coronation Street was filmed. You can still see occasional bits of painted floor where someone’s kitchen used to be. It’s a perfect venue for an event which is at once populist and massively deconstructed.

Manchester-based company Quarantine’s piece works in precisely opposite way to Coronation Street. Instead of using actors and infinitesimally detailed sets to produce the impression of a dramatic reality, they place local non-actor volunteers within arthouse theatre structures (mainland European theatre aficionados will doubtless recognise nods to multiple pieces by Forced Entertainment, as well as Pina Bausch, Rinimi Protokoll and Gob Squad) to create something that is both more aware of its artificiality, and more real.

In Summer, 45 volunteers move around the stage according to instructions projected on a screen hanging behind the audience. We are free to turn and see what they’ve been asked to do, or we can watch the jumble of bodies wordlessly negotiating with each other; dancing to Don’t Stop Me Now; laying out a bag of their possessions; re-sorting the possessions into arbitrary groupings; answering personal questions about themselves. Autumn, by contrast, is a kind of interactive knowledge bazaar with table tennis and (now obligatory?) silent disco and, more crucially, food.

Winter is a film about Mandy King-Holmes by Rachel Davies and Daniel Saul, the favourite aunt of one of Quarantine’s members, who is dying from a terminal illness. It’s about an hour long and is quietly, determinedly brilliant. Continuing the questioning model of Summer, King-Holmes replies to unheard questions frankly and honestly. She’s self-effacing and modest while the camera focuses on her garden, or her kitchen, or a cushion she’s making. Her bravery and stoicism are humbling.

Finally, Spring presents nine pregnant women who mostly sit amongst some large silvery inflatables and read from an endless list of questions that they might ask about their unborn children. It is the least successful of the pieces, as this game feels more limited in scope, like some contrasting element is still missing. That said, it is still frequently powerful.

Marathons like this are a nightmare to review, with so many live, random and – apart from the film – unfixed elements. But on Saturday what the piece did best was to create a quiet space for reflection, and for an encounter with our neighbours, our community, who we may never otherwise meet. A vital reminder that we’re not all so very different, or so very separate after all.

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