Notes on Grief; Cloud Studies; The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering – review

Manchester Central; Whitworth Art Gallery; Manchester Jewish Museum
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s reflections on the death of her father resist the confines of the stage; Forensic Architecture consider the air we breathe; and Laure Prouvost celebrates one synagogue’s women

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s gift as a writer is for directness. Words are never road blocks, they are helping hands. There is a warmth to her novels (Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah) and to her nonfiction work. Notes on Grief began as an essay for the New Yorker. It was an outpouring, one of those pieces that seems to have written itself, about the loss of her 88-year-old father, James Nwoye Adichie, who died in June 2020. Personal though it was, it touched a universal nerve because it belonged to the excruciating general moment in which goodbyes were prohibited, attending funerals banned and loss itself had become an affront. Adichie’s essay evolved into a book that has now been adapted for the stage by Rae McKen, who also directs. It is one of the shows topping the bill at this year’s reflective Manchester international festival.

Michelle Asante is perfectly cast as Adichie, and plays her in an engaging, suitably outspoken manner. She wears a frock in bold orange and blue African fabric, with eye-catching belt and large, leaf-shaped earrings (costume and design by Rosa Maggiora). Her queenly appearance tempts one into supposing that Adichie can handle anything, which makes her sudden unravelling all the more startling. The writer was living in the US, west of Baltimore, when her father died. He was at home in the family’s ancestral village of Abba, in Nigeria. Adichie describes how her family had got into the rhythm of Zoom calls and in-jokes. She used to tease her father when unable to see his face – he couldn’t get the hang of the webcam (the show does not miss this trick, projecting looming nose and chin on screen).

Her father’s health was not perfect, but his death – of complications related to chronic kidney disease – was unexpected, and left Adichie in a state of denial that you might see as the flipside of love. She raged over letters of condolence, resisted the language that tiptoes about after a death, protested at “demise”, was impatient with those who told her that her father was now “resting”, and outraged when informed that he had “gone to a better place”. It is a pleasure to be reminded of her prose.

This is a three-hander, with the father played by Itoya Osagiede, whose jaunty scarlet kufi cap perfectly suits his upbeat character. He touchingly takes on the faltering gait of an octogenarian, the wisdom of Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, and the innocence of an unusually non-materialistic man. Uche Abuah takes care of all attendant female roles: she is discreet as Adichie’s mother and playfully effusive as the young Chimamanda.

We are in an under-furnished sitting room, dominated by an unnaturally long sofa that gets shunted about for punctuation. It is loudly divided – in a particularly unsuccessful move – to illustrate Adichie falling apart when she first hears her father has died. Movement director Yami Löfvenberg needs to reconsider, however, because at present, grief is plonkily choreographed with all three actors performing simple movements, like a backing group in a 60s band. This does the complexity of Adichie’s text no favours.

But the challenge the actors and directors face is obvious. Asante has nowhere to go because Notes on Grief has only partly made the transition from page to stage. The adaptation, for all its value, is misconceived: it stubbornly remains more a recital from the New Yorker than a play, not least because of the minimal interaction between characters. It would benefit from losing 20 minutes, and is not helped by the venue, which is too big for a chamber piece. But it succeeded in making me think about grief in a new way. I recognised that, contrary to how it is usually presented, grief is inherently undramatic. It’s about calling a halt, suspended activity, bringing a curtain down. It is eventless – all aftermath.

Cloud Studies takes up a suite of rooms at the Whitworth Art Gallery, and if the title makes you think of Constable, the gallery directors are keen to humour you, as one of his beautiful cloud studies, from its permanent collection, forms part of the carefully curated antechamber to the show. But the clouds being considered by Forensic Architecture are toxic. This group is dedicated to “researching state and corporate violence”, and is made up of architects, film-makers, journalists, artists, lawyers, scientists and software developers. They have had the original idea of analysing, in sobering and ambitious detail, the various ways in which the air – far from being neutral or free – is witness to an unequal world.

Clouds are seen to be “mobilised by state and corporate power”, and to “colonise the air we breathe”. They are “environmental and political”. Making yourself comfortable in the huge, dark space of the first room, on the beanbags provided, soon starts to feel like a gaffe – for there is nothing comfortable about what you behold. I came into the exhibition as a snatch from one of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was being broadcast, but the singing was soon overlaid by the terrifying thought: “There is no doubt the skies are closing in…” On a mighty curved screen we witness Israel’s 2008 bombing of the Gaza Strip and see Palestinian crops destroyed by spraying – “herbicidal warfare”. We watch as, in retaliation, Palestinians set fire to tyres and filthy black plumes form a smokescreen.

Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Art Gallery.
Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Photograph: Michael Pollard

A second film considers Louisiana and the 85 miles along the Mississippi River once known as “plantation country”, now referred to as the “petrochemical corridor”. The industrial plants on this land “occupy the fallow footprints of formerly slave-powered sugarcane plantations”. Forensic Architecture builds a powerful case against environmental racism but I’d have liked more human testimony (there is some – and it brings arguments alive) and not so many computer graphics (sophisticated though they are). A third “archive” room invites us to brood on footage of multiple pollutions: teargas in Santiago, bombing in Syria and Beirut. It feels like overkill. But that – alas – is the point.

I was momentarily taken aback when the first image in Laure Prouvost’s charming film for Manchester Jewish Museum turned out to be a bed of cloud. But these clouds are celestial – a different breed altogether. Do not be misled by the installation’s laboured title: The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering. It’s a gravity-defying delight. The museum itself is choice: newly restored, beautifully run and a must-see for anyone who has never been there. It was originally north Manchester’s Sephardi synagogue, built in 1874. Prouvost – winner of the 2013 Turner prize – has been given permission to commandeer the ladies’ gallery, from where women used to have a bird’s eye view of the action below.

Laure Prouvost’s The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering at Manchester Jewish Museum.
Laure Prouvost’s The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering at Manchester Jewish Museum. Photograph: Michael Pollard

What we are offered is a mingled, conversational history of the synagogue’s women – past and present, real and imagined. Prouvost has worked with a talented women’s textile group to create materials for the piece. Heaven, in her film, emerges as a long tea table above the clouds with lacy white tablecloth (I approve). There is much flaunting of glamorous millinery – osprey feathers abound. The ladies seem to have hatched out in heaven – they honour the theme of Jewish migration. These birds of a feather crack jokes in mutual affection. It is an installation that is never mournful, and filled with doves we hope will do their job properly and dispense peace.

Star ratings (out of five)
Notes on Grief
Cloud Studies ★★★
The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering ★★★★


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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