Well, it’s over for another two years. No, not the Tory Party leadership contest, I mean the Manchester International Festival. Having said that, the Tories have provided enough bad actors, liars and psychopaths to constitute a festival of sorts, a bit like asking the inmates of Bedlam to perform the Confederacy of Dunces without a script. Actually, that’s not bad, I might rustle up an outline and submit it to MIF21. While the consensus on MIF19 is that it has largely been hugely successful, we will have to wait until the dust settles to judge objectively.
I was lucky to secure a ticket to see the Tao of Glass by Philip Glass and Phelim McDermott at the Royal Exchange. As I wended my way to the Royal Exchange theatre after a swift half in Festival Square, I reflected on the square and the festive spirit it provides. It’s a space for culture-loving Mancunians to gather and strut their collective stuff before the town centre is abandoned to the usual weekend crazies. I will be sad when it’s put away.
The festival has attracted its fair share of cultural icons. I was beginning to call it the Manchester International Skype Festival until I spotted Laurie Anderson mingling with punters outside her Moon project. There had also been rumours that Philip Glass was also here and making a short appearance at some performances of the Tao. This, I think, was at the root of my excitement.
The Tao of Glass is a collaboration between Glass and theatre director, Phelim McDermott. It is, more or less, a one-man show where McDermott weaves a tale of his obsession with Glass and his music. He is helped by a small group of talented puppeteers and musicians who deftly augment McDermott’s retelling of how the Tao of Glass came to pass. The play movingly starts with McDermott sitting in the audience. As a spotlight picks him out, he tells the woman sat next to him of his love of the Royal Exchange and the experiences he had there growing up in Blackley, North Manchester.
Another of McDermott’s formative experiences was the discovery of Glass’s music, especially Glassworks which, to his family’s irritation, he played over and over. It was neat and heartfelt piece of storytelling and I felt touched by the nostalgia of his childhood dreams. He particularly dreamt of bringing Glass to the Royal Exchange, and the Tao of Glass was in part a fulfilment of that. I admit I felt a tear of lost childhood desires trickle down my cheek.
Unfortunately, that soon gave way to tears of boredom as McDermott’s tale turned into such a litany of name-dropping that they littered the stage like the pages of sheet music which rained down from the rafters as he explained (again) his deep love of Glass’s work and how he got to know him and other famous people… and how he bought a glass coffee table with some money he had made from another project he’d done with Glass…and how it had been smashed into little pieces by some careless workmen but he didn’t tell us their names because they weren’t famous enough. My friend called it ‘a humble brag’.
As I drifted off and started to wonder where he bought his shoes, a bit of magic happened. Philip Glass – the real Philip Glass – appeared on stage and played some Glassworks. I wanted so much to like this, and it was bookended by moments of pure joy. Everyone else loved it and to have Glass here was a real feather in McDermott’s cap. But I hear that Glass has already left. I fear that some audiences will miss out on, what was for me, the highlight of the show.
Main image: Tao of Glass, Phelim McDermott, Janet Etuk, David Emmings, MIF2019 (c) Tristram Kenton