Manchester International Festival brings artists from all over the world to use the city as their inspiration and canvas. The programme includes live music, art installations, comedy, and theatre.

Credit: Tristram Kenton

They: A Sequence Of Unease was written and published by Kay Dick in 1977 and has been adapted for MIF by Sarah Frankcom, Imogen Knight, and star of stage and screen Maxine Peake. They is an eerie dystopia and in its world art in all its forms is eradicated. 

In this after-hours performance, the gothic and slightly sinister John Rylands Libary is the setting for the reading of this recently rediscovered piece. The main reading room within the library is the perfect venue for this story to be told and is reminiscent of a church in many ways. Vast in height and stunning to the eye, It’s easy to see why this venue has been chosen for this re-telling.

Peake arrives to near silence and takes her seat, reading from her script, and we are immediately plunged into darkness. A striking contrast to the previously vastly lit open space with natural light. The single spotlight shines on her face as she recites the story, both as the narrator and the characters. As the narrative progresses Peake places pieces of her script gently on the ground between the captivated audience on the long narrow space she performs on. By narrating all the characters it was difficult to differentiate between each, symbolic perhaps that in one way or another we are all creators of art in some form and all alike. It isn’t until the second half of this 45-minute performance that there is a shift in intensity. 

Now off script, Peake recites the cruel and torturous ways in which each character is punished for their declaration of art or love passionately. Devising a piece of theatre in a non-conforming capacity does come with its own limitations. Seamlessly bounding between characters we get a brief insight into each with just their names but are left wanting more due to the short nature of the reworked text. The piece alludes to the barbaric nature in which the characters are decimated due to their art without fully going all the way. No one is exempt from the punishments and begs the question ‘Would it be enough to go on quietly creating for yourself?’

Peake’s performance however is insightful. In the latter part of the piece, the vigour and force she demonstrates evoke raw emotion as she looks each audience member in the eyes with terror upon her face. Filmmaker Joseph Lynn appears towards the climax of the reading filming Peake in her tracks. This didn’t have the desired impact and took us away from dystopia to disengaged. 

Amy Mae’s lighting design is uncomplicated but effortless. The stone arches of the library anre illuminated by spotlights as Peake moves between them, the light hitting her face like a suspect as she passes by. Movement director Imogen Knight should be commended, in what could have been restrictive static direction, given the space and material, we watched every movement Peake made with anticipation. Movements appeared nuanced but natural. 

The piece written many years ago strikes a worrying resemblance to today’s society. At a time when artists around the world, continue to be censored for their ideas and have unprecedented interference due to the lack of government support. The festival prides itself on supporting thought-provoking performances and this performance indeed does that. The atmospheric piece leaves us with more questions than answers but asks us to take courage and speak the truth.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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