It’s been a long, controversial time coming – and an eye-watering amount of money in the making – but ‘Manchester’s landmark new cultural venue, Aviva Studios, the permanent home of Factory International’ officially opened this week, and it would be a dull soul indeed who wasn’t genuinely impressed by its scale and ambition. Appropriately, those admirable qualities are reflected in the opening show, the world premiere of Free Your Mind, a large-scale immersive dance musical performance based on The Matrix.
As for Factory International itself, I don’t mind admitting that I’ve been one of many who have looked on at the whole venture with some scepticism, to the extent of dismissing the notion of a hip-hop musical based on a 90s film as more than a little preposterous. Of course, serious concerns remain to be answered which this week’s announcement of a few, albeit intriguing, early shows didn’t really assuage. But now, as the great, the good and the glitterati gathered to celebrate (along with a Tory culture minister understandably eager to claim the development not only as part of an otherwise discredited levelling-up initiative but also as evidence of the UK boldly striding onto a world stage), the venue and opening show both seem to represent a real triumph of art and ambition over complacency as well as undeclared war on culture.
Earlier at the venue’s launch, the creative team behind Free Your Mind, including director Danny Boyle (local hero and still just about the friendliest household name in the arts), choreographer Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy, composer Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante (co-founders and artistic directors of the Olivier award-winning Boy Blue), and set designer Es Devlin were at pains to emphasise how they had endeavoured to show off the various ways such an ultra-flexible, cutting edge series of spaces could be utilised.
“We took very seriously the responsibility of introducing the building to the city,” says Boyle. “That’s obviously one of the reasons we did The Matrix because it reaches so many people and remains part of everyone’s language.”
He continues: “Our show hands over the keys of this place to the people of Manchester. At heart, this is what Free Your Mind is about – inspiring a sense of urgency and purpose, reminding audiences that the future is charged with promise, should we choose to shape it.”
The film presciently depicted a world in which humanity is imprisoned in a virtual reality, while sentient machines harvest their energy. But Free Your Mind is subtitled The Matrix Now and has been created nearly a quarter of a century later, at a time when humans may currently be “enslaved by algorithms as technology giants harvests our data and diminish our executive abilities” yet the future remains unwritten. Will humans work together with machines or will we acquiesce? In the original film, such weighty questions were decorated with astonishing (for the time) visual effects and spectacular fight sequences (which proved especially jaw-dropping for Western audiences who’d failed to take note of what had been happening for ages in action scenes in the huge Far East film market).
In Manchester, the wow factor lies partly in the building itself, with the show unfolding in two halves – firstly in the big, 1400-ish seater and unusually well-appointed theatre, then in the massive warehouse space, barely recognisable from the Kusama exhibition it housed a few months ago. But it also lies with Devlin’s extraordinary designs and the dazzling, large-scale dance routines involving 50 professional dancers, many of them locally based. The narrative is possibly a little difficult to follow if you’re not overly familiar with the film and its spin-offs, but this hardly matters given the sheer overwhelming, inevitably immersive scale of the event.
Despite its global view, it’s a show placed very much in the context of Manchester, with an opening sequence featuring Alan Turing, father of the modern computer, and subsequent references to Granada Studios (previously situated on the land now occupied by Aviva Studios, of course), Tony Wilson, Joy Division and other Manchester musicians and world-leading creatives. It also features enough references to scenes from the film to audibly delight the whooping sci-fi fanboys and girls. But essentially this is a show to surrender yourself to, soaking in the sights, the sounds, the ideas and the sheer ambition. It’s ideal for its essential purpose of introducing such a vital new artistic space to the world.
Main image: Free Your Mind by Tristram Kenton
Free Your Mind is at Aviva Studios, Water Street, Manchester until November 5,2023. For more information, click here.