Manchester international festival theatre roundup – emotion socks you in the face

Museum of Science and Technology; Royal Exchange; Home; Mayfield, Manchester
A captive audience is ruffled in immersive refugee drama The Welcoming Party. Elsewhere, powerful tales of sons and fathers and a war room full of women

There was Nicholas Serota, head of Arts Council England, about to be deported. Along with me. Neither of us could, in 10 minutes, get our forms filled out, our fingerprints taken, find our country’s identifying number on a poster with tiny print. No one could. The closing minutes of The Welcoming Party (like all these shows at the Manchester international festival, a world premiere) trapped its audience in a spiral of bureaucracy familiar to “migrants”. Crushed us in a crowd. Made everyone realise how quickly competence can be dismantled.

It was not the only feat. Here, Theatre-Rites, which specialises in children’s theatre, distils the refugee experience. Their words are sometimes over-explicit; their images are unforgettable. A man packs hurriedly in the Sudan. He holds to his cheek a brightly coloured cloth. Which briefly turns into its owner: his mother. She springs from the fabric – a puppet so realistic that she could be a magical human being – before crumpling back into cotton, as if dissolved by grief. He heads across a desert, an ochre tarpaulin finely lit so that the actors’ bodies beneath create mounds and dips. He is carried aloft on a wooden raft: below him polythene waves swell, bearing the faceless drowned. In the UK, he is shot into a detention centre down a luggage chute. Wire cages are pushed wildly across the floor in a demented dance, with actors locked inside and swinging from the doors. Anyone can be a victim. An interpreter, long-time resident in London, is obliged to recount his past life, showing images from a long-ago vivid, bibliophile Baghdad, and a later shattered city. What proof of identity would I have shown? Or Nicholas Serota?

Ah, Fatherland. Unexpected, peculiar, an extraordinary fusion of words, movement and light. Just when you’re thinking it is too clever by half, emotion socks you in the face. Just when you’re thinking this might be a bit sentimental, a sceptic stabs you in the back.

Watch the trailer for Fatherland.

Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham, Karl Hyde from the band Underworld and playwright Simon Stephens set out to look at fathers: how they are with their sons and their dads. They went back to their home towns – Corby, Kidderminster and Stockport – and interviewed men. Most of the stories are sad. A fireman remembers going on Christmas Eve to a house where two sons, visiting their father after a long absence, had failed to rouse him. Falling asleep with heaters blazing, he had melted up the walls of his room. A fellow who prides himself on his fierceness remembers how in Saudi his dad took him as a child to see someone being stoned. A young man, asked if he ever told his father he loved him, sings his answer: “Nooooo” in a slow release of breath.

These men drift into music – composed by Matthew Herbert – not at the highest but at the most ordinary moments; they seem to float on bathos. And yet gathering together in a chorus, occasionally supplemented by voices outside the auditorium, the sound swells into something glorious. As does the choreography: the company move together in what looks sometimes like a scrum, sometimes a dance. They do so on a bare stage above a rectangle of glass bricks, through which light glows.

And then there’s the sceptic. A man who decides against giving an interview. He suggests that editing can make a lie of a text. That these London-based “creatives” are cruising with some condescension around their birthplaces. That their work is indulgent. And that – crucially – they fail even to realise the implications of their title. Imagine, post-Brexit, the force of the word “Fatherland”. This is a far-reaching play.

Homeland star Nina Hoss in Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Returning to Reims.
Homeland star Nina Hoss in Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Returning to Reims. Photograph: Arno Declair

Returning to Reims also examines fathers and estrangement. In Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne staging of a memoir by Didier Eribon, the narrator looks at the working-class life of his communist parents, observes his own estrangement – and asks what part the left has played in the rise of the far right. It opens with the voice of the Ghost from Hamlet.

Didier’s news, his surprise at the populist surge, is now received wisdom. Yet the diligence and intricacy with which the subject is investigated gives the work some distinction. Nina Hoss, of TV’s Homeland, plays an actress recording the memoir: she delivers the text in an intense semi-whisper; nothing is made of the rarity of a woman reciting a man’s words. The pace is leisurely – almost somnolent, sometimes hypnotic. At the back runs video of the narrator’s mother at home in old age; the factory in which she worked (it is never clear exactly what it makes); student demonstrations. The actress interrupts occasionally to query an emphasis; her own life with an activist father is also put on show. A preening producer and hyperactive rapper sound recordist also burst in. But forthright arguments steer the evening. That the left has begun to talk the language of those who govern rather than those who are governed. That inequality is a feeble term for the violence of exploitation. Arresting stuff – though more argued than embodied.

What If Women Ruled the World? at Mayfield, Manchester.
What If Women Ruled the World? at Mayfield, Manchester. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

What If Women Ruled the World? each night offered fragments of a larger piece. Yael Bartana’s film is to be edited from a series of theatrical evenings. All are set around a war cabinet table, to the ticking of the Doomsday clock. They begin in fiction, with a parodic nod to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, at the end of which a world was imagined in which women outnumber men by 10 to one: Abi (Suffragette) Morgan has written the script. Vicky Featherstone directs. Then follows a live debate between real (female) experts, different each night, who put forward proposals for change. They are served tea by a fellow in skimpy briefs pushing a hostess trolley.

My night was jumbled. Muddled between aims and policies, large- and small-scale. The team, who included a human rights lawyer, a psychotherapist and a specialist in international security, declared we need to ban nuclear weapons, “re-educate ourselves” – and abolish the tax on tampons. Cogently expressed but often hard to hear, and with no pressure to explain how anything might actually be brought about and too little attempt to get the speakers to debate with each other. The biggest applause came for a speech against FGM: practical and specific, taking the debate beyond niceness. Mind you, if women – we – were really in charge surely we wouldn’t be rulers: we would just cooperate like billy-o.

Star ratings (out of 5)
The Welcoming Party ★★★★
Fatherland ★★★★
Returning to Reims ★★★
What If Women Ruled the World? ★★

Fatherland is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 22 July


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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