If Manchester International Festival (MIF) has any raison d’être, this has to be it. Without MIF’s commission, this fine piece of work would not exist.
It reminds me of another commissioned piece I saw at Manchester’s Royal Exchange during the last MIF, which was much less successful and yet, much more likely to succeed. Phelim McDermott’s piece, The Tao of Glass, is about his obsession with the music of Philip Glass. Unfortunately, I didn’t get there on the night Glass actually played and, all in all, I thought it was a bit ‘meh’ (you can read my colleague Robert Hamilton’s review of it here). Nevertheless, it was clearly a must-see for those who needed to keep up with that sort of thing. But with both Glass and McDermott’s names attached, it went on to enjoy a great future, touring the world from one international festival to another.
For me, what connects The Tao of Glass to The Global Playground is some magnificent object manipulation. In Tao of Glass it was done with sticks and paper by two puppeteers, but The Global Playground involves everyone and uses various pieces of filming equipment. I know that sounds dull, but you have to trust me.
Under COVID-19, the logistics of theatre production are rigorous and almost inhumane. The cast and production team rehearsed and teched for five weeks with one week of filming for the digital production. Throughout that time, they’ve had to live together in a support bubble and, to stop possible pings on their NHS app, they couldn’t go shopping, drinking or do any of the other things that Manchester is good for. But the results are worth it.
Performed in a large warehouse space in Manchester’s Great Northern building, the premise of the show follows a group of dancers who are gathered to make a film. All goes according to plan for about five minutes, that is until the camera suddenly develops a personality and opinions. It’s all downhill from there.
The dancing is terrific. I’m not a dance critic, but my office at the BBC used to be opposite the practice room of the Northern Ballet School and the expression ‘how on earth do they do that?’ was frequently on my lips. And it was again, at this show, but intermingled with ‘oh, that’s beautiful’ and quite a lot of laughing.
The dancers, Annie Edwards, Charmene Pang, Jahmarley Bachelor and Kennedy Junior Muntaga, are as diverse a troupe as you’ll find anywhere, and their dancing styles mirror that diversity. Another dancer, Thulani Chauke, is stuck in South Africa, but we saw him dancing on a huge video screen. The choreography was by Gregory Maqoma, who, in true pandemic fashion, had to utilise Zoom for the first week and a half of rehearsals. However, he was able to be there in-person for the remaining four and a half weeks.
The man putatively in charge of the ‘filming’ is Sean Garret, one of the finest puppeteers I have seen, and he’s a ventriloquist, too. He animates the camera and then various props and, for a short, glorious section, even a muppet-style character who threatens to steal the show but retires to his box just in time. Soon, the dancers are also animating objects and the play becomes about exactly that, play. The mayhem is aided and abetted by musician and percussionist, Merlin Jones.
This is a Theatre-Rites production, and the work was directed by Sue Buckmaster (who started the company) and celebrates its 25th anniversary with this show. Buckmaster’s company has a reputation for extremely high-quality theatre which places children at the centre of the work. She likes exploring form and the work is always exciting. This piece is no exception. I hope it gets further outings at numerous international festivals and maybe a bit of ordinary touring here, too.
If you can’t make it to the show, and it really is worth the journey, you can also stream it online.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Main image: A scene from The Global Playground by Theatre-Rites ©Tristram Kenton 06-21
The Global Playground, commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival and Theatre-Rites is at Manchester’s Great Northern until July 18, 2021. The show can also be streamed online. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.