Playhouse: a year at (some of) Manchester’s theatres

I never realised I actually enjoyed going to the theatre. To be completely honest, I think I watched not more than four or five plays while I was living in Germany, including the two I actually acted in.* And all of a sudden, as soon as I had moved to Manchester, this just rocketed: maybe thanks to the cheap tickets for young people, maybe because I’m getting older, soon too old to classify as a young person anymore. Now that’s what I call a dilemma.

My theatrical excursions began early in 2010 with a trip to the Library Theatre to see Grimm Tales, a performance piece with music and dance, but far from being a musical. I loved the Library Theatre, the fact that you had to go down the stairs just right after the library entrance hall to end up in this subterranean playhouse, the red seats, the tiny little bar, and the ice cream vendors during the interval. Carol Ann Duffy’s adaptation was a dark and fascinating interpretation of the Brother Grimm’s tales, the performance was thoroughly enjoyable, and the set design had been crafted with love for detail. Solid.

My next trip was an introduction into the wonderful world of Gilbert & Sullivan, two names I had never heard of before witnessing the beginning of a rehearsal of the University’s G&S society. Lacking chairs in the rehearsal room, one of the members dramatically exclaimed ‘No more chairs! NO more CHAIRS!!’ which prompted an even more dramatical performance from the other actors. I kind of new what to expect then when buying tickets for The Pirates of Penzance: over-the-top singing from a 40 piece choir, dance choreographies, meticulous costumes and an enormously huge set. It was the night of the elections, and it seemed to me that – in preparation for the grim days to come – the troupe was singing for their lives, one last time. Impressive.

Shortly before or after that I saw The Comedy of Errors at the Royal Exchange Theatre, the theatre I seem to visit fairly frequently. My first ever live Shakespeare, and, as expected, I had serious trouble understanding the words – it didn’t help that one of the main characters was Scottish. I get modern day northern accents, and that’s about it. Don’t understand southerners, let alone any kind of old-fashioned English. Fortunately, I was at least vaguely familiar with the story and could follow to an extent that made it not completely unpleasant. Call me uneducated, but I still don’t find Shakespeare’s comedies particularly appealing. Unsurprising.

In June I saw one of my favourite plays – Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, again at the Library Theatre. My non-existing knowledge of English literature borders onto embarrassing, but I had neither read nor seen the play before. I spent the next two hours giggling in my chair, marveling at the costumes, getting excited about every single one of Lady Bracknell’s appearances on stage, and shaking my head at the characters’ stupidity – oh how I loved it! I really enjoyed watching this lovely ‘making of’ Earnest and a review of 60 years of Library Theatre. Marvellous.

It being summer, we engaged in the Great British tradition of outdoors theatre and picnic, as we went to see yet another Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – at Heaton Park. While our rug and M&S nibbles combo seemed satisfying at first, it looked rather pale compared to our neighbours’ picnic table, chairs, cutlery, wine glasses(!) and home made delicacies. You people know how to do a picnic. The weather was surprisingly nice, you could even say mild and sunny, the play was just as, well, mild, spiked with the ever present sexual innuendos, but enjoyable. The audience got involved to some extent, as we had our grapes stolen by an actor, while Puck – played by a young lady in a sequined showgirl-outfit – made herself comfortable on a gentleman’s lap. Summery.

Following a summer break, I went to see my last play of 2010 at the Royal Exchange, something I had been looking forward to for quite a while: Dr Faustus, a play by Christopher Marlowe, based on a German folk tale, which, pretty much exactly 200 years later, had been adapted by the greatest of our writers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was great to look at indeed, the devil’s little monsters were pretty scary in all their dancing and fighting, the acrobatic acts impressive, but it just lacked… something. The tragical side of the story seemed somewhat neglected in favour of effects, and I actually think I did a little power nap at some point. Epic.

What was your favourite play last year? Which one is your favourite theatre in Manchester?

* As a servant and a poet if you’re interested. One of the best things I’ve ever done, and I still find it astonishing what human beings are capable of when it comes to learning text. I can’t even remember other people’s names, but I easily memorized a one page monologue and recited it without errors over the course of several weeks.