Commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival
Exchange Auditorium, Manchester Central
The programming of this piece is incredibly timely and poignant. Grief is nothing new but grief experienced on a global scale in a digital age is new to us. Loss and Grief have enveloped us all in a choking haze for the past 18 months. This is a verbatim piece that brings to the stage Notes on Grief written by the renowned writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This essay was her response to the overwhelming loss she experienced last year on the news of the death of her beloved father, the original dada; the scholar James Nwoye Adichie. What she writes is the uniqueness of her own lived experience but running through her words are the threads that bind us all in our humanity- the knowledge that grief will take us to a dark chasm and when we emerge we are never the same again.
Michelle Asante gives a strong performance in this demanding piece of verbatim and she is supported by two other cast members who are tasked with fleshing out a range of characters including her dead father at various points on his life. Accents and mannerisms of the Nigerian family are on point but too often lines are fluffed and beats are missed. Asante is the consummate professional amidst minor errors and tech issues with lights coming on out of sync. However the overwhelming problem is they distract from the writing and give this production an am-dram feeling that is unworthy of an international festival production.
There is something jarring and clumsy in the movement sequences that do nothing to add to the production and seem at odds with the text. Adichie actually writes of her acknowledgement of the Igbo way, of the African performative playing out of grief and acknowledges that it is not for her. It seems odd that Director Rae McKen chooses to use this device to push home to the audience the level of grief…it is unnecessary when the writers words spoken aloud by Assante do all that is needed. Video sequences and projected images also allude to the sense of loss and there are moments where they work beautifully but they risk being overused and losing their potency.
Notes On Grief could have been the absolute highlight of this Festival but sadly it falls short. The emotion of the writing just does not translate to stage in this particular production…perhaps the Director was hampered by the fear many of us hold around grief and what it may do to us. Any issues are however secondary to the power of this very personal essay. Without alluding to it once, Adichie takes us through the 5 stages of grief so wonderfully explained in Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler. We see the denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression and in the final line, the acceptance I am writing about my father in the past tense,and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.
Adichie reflects towards the end that her father was truly lovely. The simplicity and power of that statement is perhaps the most moving moment in the production. Sitting in the audience I could not help reflect on my own father. He too was Daddy and he too was truly lovely and has been gone now for 29 long years. Watching this play was also 2 years and 1 day on from the loss of another truly lovely man in my life. If Notes On Grief reminds us of anything it is that grief is just love with nowhere left to go. We are lucky to have loved and to have encountered people in our lives who were simply easy to love.
A family theatre show in the midst of an ongoing pandemic is special for so many reasons. In a MIF programme that is for many alarmingly short on theatre and dance, there is no small pressure on Theatre-Rites to use their 25 years of experience to make something very special indeed. The focus of The Global Playground is all about the joy of unfettered play. It is all about exuberance, collaboration and celebration. A show for families can often appear off putting with the assumption it will be either saccharine or heavy handed or sadly both. However Director Sue Buckmaster and MIF have a proven flare for family programming that can appeal to all ages in ways that delight and inform. The Global Playground delivers on entertainment with a neat look into the world of creative film making.
This is a show within a show as it unfolds, it is clear that we are the audience watching the filming of a show for children’s television that reflects diversity in dance. It soon becomes clear that we are also witnessing the lovable flustered Sean Garratt as an inexperienced film director faced with mounting challenges as dancers and musicians drop out due to travel restrictions and other issues that neatly reflect the last year of a global pandemic. Creative solutions abound as Kennedy Junior Muntanga dances a duet on Zoom with Thulani Chauke who genuinely couldn’t travel to Britain as originally planned. Merlin Jones takes the reins playing all the live instruments when composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson is also unable to appear.
A circular stage has a flavour of the circus and certainly this is a performance filled with clowning and buffoonery but the staging also creates a feeling of safety for all in this new world of covid safety. This is a set filled with film equipment which is introduced and explained to the audience. Above, in front and behind there is always stuff to see. Images are projected on walls, a drum kit looks down on us, a talking camera is sometimes like a chatty ventriloquists’ dummy or becomes snake like and sinister as it darts a red light across the stage like a beady, disapproving eye. This is a fun way to learn about sound and lighting on a set.
The dance performances are uniformly excellent and varied. There are flavours of a range of styles including contemporary with hip hop dance offs and moments of clowning. The sheer exuberance and joy of movement is palpable and shines through in the facial expressions of all the performers particularly Annie Edwards and Jahmarley Bachelor. Puppetry and ventriloquism also feature and are seamlessly interwoven into the story by choreographer Gregory Maqoma.
The dancers increasingly take charge doing their own thing and left to play something new and beautiful emerges. The set is deconstructed and props and equipment are repurposed as lighting equipment become skirts and a wonky tripod covered in duct tape becomes the choreographer. There is an anarchic element yet also an underlying message that if we embrace the chaos we may create a new order that has its own intrinsic value.