Challenging the conventionality has become something of a habit for renowned theatre company Contact. Pushing the boundaries has often been their forte and in their latest offering, in conjunction with Young Identity, they have joined forces with Manchester Art Gallery in a provocative piece that forces us the audience to ask vital questions about our collections, our buildings and culture and ultimately how we see them.
This wouldn’t be Contact Theatre if there wasn’t some razzmatazz that went along with this unusual gallery tour. It mashes up its own artistic license with the ones that are adorned on the walls or statues that are situated strategically within the performers space. It alludes to a post colonialist future, which is apt given that the production’s main theme is to explore what it means to decolonise public culture. The effect of the past and the future is forcefully juxtaposed to one another, mainly through the company’s use of poetry and spoken word to galvanise moments within the show.
Directed by dramaturg Tunde Adefioye, from KVS – the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels, and Ruby-Ann Patterson, their production is one that is designed to agitate. The setting is no accident. This is not just a production that is set in unusual surroundings for the sake of it, but the Gallery itself becomes in its own way a pivotal character within proceedings.
We the audience are also not treated as you’d expect, to be herded en-masse from one area of the building to another. The company take different audience groups on their own tailor made and alternative gallery tour. And at times it is breathtakingly captivating. Stood, sat, shepherded into nooks and crannies of the Gallery and being told repeatedly to see things unconventionally, something that Adefioye reiterates:
“Galleries tell us about who we used to be, who we are and our future. Importantly they define the stories we tell ourselves about our collective identity, it’s really important that we critique these places and the people in power. We need to question the narrative being told because it will define the stories we tell about ourselves going forward.”
For those that have followed this blog, you will no doubt know of my rants about how art is viewed. Not that I don’t appreciate art for it is, but it highlights how conservative people see art can be. Shows such as these jolt us out this preconceived thinking and appreciate art in a new light.
Yet, for all its bluster, the ambitiousness of this piece just gets the better of it. The space sometimes becomes unconducive to the message that is being presented. Then there is ambiguousness of the thread that weaves this production together. It’s a melting pot of ideas that have you at times thinking you’re on the precipice of a revival of Hair or being an unwitting participant in some sort of apocalyptic event. The immersive nature of the production doesn’t really hang on this woven thread. It’s unclarity just has us aimlessly trying to make sense of it all.
What makes this production memorable is when you just let the performers perform. It’s their wizardry with the storytelling or their poetic rhythmic bombasticness or just a good old fashioned sing song at the end. For me that’s when it truly achieves its goal.
Verdict: Another thought provoking piece from those cool kids on the block, Contact Theatre and Young Identity, challenging us to see art in a different way. Full of rocking rhymes and stupefying spoken word that definitely leads you to question how we perceive art!