“In harrowing times for so many, it’s more important than ever to remember Engels’ legacy – and the spirit of solidarity and dignity which beats at its core,” observed Turner Prize-nominated artist Phil Collins. He was referring to Manchester International Festival’s closing commission celebrating the metaphorical ‘return home’ of philosopher, writer, and radical thinker Friedrich Engels in the form of a Soviet-era statue, driven across Europe and now permanently installed in the centre of Manchester, near HOME.
The son of a German mill owner, Engels first arrived in Manchester from the Rhineland in 1842 after an argument with his father, who sent him to work for the family firm of Ermen & Engels at the Victoria Mill in Salford. If his dad had hoped to thus rid the handsome young man of both his radical politics and his “dissolute ways”, he badly miscalculated. On the contrary, the conditions of the working classes he encountered, plus his meeting with Karl Marx in Paris in 1844, actually “gave rise to the body of brilliant, revolutionary, philosophical and economic writings which has inspired revolutions, provoked establishment fears and stimulated academic enquiry ever since”, to quote the Working Class Movement Library where much of his work is stored.
Engels lived in the North West for nearly 20 years and Ceremony (promised Collins and Manchester International Festival) would return him to prominence in Manchester, “reasserting the city’s crucial role in the history of radical thought”.
Unimpeachable sentiments, no doubt. However, although a typically committed introduction from Maxine Peake,which drew parallels between the conditions which Engels faced in Manchester at the time and conditions we live in today, got things off to a promising start, the steady exit of people losing patience with the interactive presentations projected onto a huge screen in a nearby car park told a slightly different story.
There was a deflated feeling that this was not exactly the high point with which everyone would have wanted this year’s MIF to bow out for another two years, especially after premiering so much fabulous work over the last few weeks under the revitalising guidance of John McGrath.
Still, Ceremony’s efforts to feature work from grassroots charities such as Lifeshare in order to highlight on-going social issues in the city was laudable.
It also remains to be seen whether Collins’ second part of Ceremony, a film created from elements of the footage from this event that’s due to be presented next year as part of the 14-18 NOW season of “extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War”, might prove more successful.
By Kevin Bourke, Theatre Editor