Thanks to a partnership between The Old Electric and Factory International, on 15th October Rob Mason was one of a creative few who got to preview the brand new Manchester arts venue and its debut show this week. He writes how The Matrix-inspired show, directed by Danny Boyle and commenting on capitalism, was a theatre experience like no other.

Aviva Studios, home of Factory International and is a pretty special place. Having sat in standstill traffic for nearly an hour on the M61, it nearly wasn’t, although thankfully we made it with even enough time to enjoy some pre-show pizza.

The atmosphere inside was alive with anticipation for Free Your Mind – a specially created journey into The Matrix through dance and immersive design, created to to celebrate the opening of the new venue. As patrons and performers mingled together grabbing drinks and food. Even the show’s superstar director, Danny Boyle, was floating around chatting, posing for selfies with fans and checking up on the pulse of expectation. Then performers began to appear in character. Anthropomorphic rabbits and barrel rollers on large Duracell batteries were paraded around by actors dressed in long, brown overcoats.

Entering the performance space, we were given a blue wrist band to wear and told that this would be important for the second half of the show. Sitting in the stalls, I was first struck by how comfy the seats were. Spacious and cosy, I had a great view of the stage which bore a 1950’s-era TV set and featured several cast members sweeping around it in their overcoats.

John McGrath, Factory’s artistic director welcomed visitors before the TV set came to life with a tricky monologue from Alan Turing highlighting Manchester’s history in manufacturing and industry. The city itself was to be a theme revisited throughout the show. Turing was soon brought to life by a cast member, who continued the monologue through interpretive dance, joined by another seven or eight artists dressed in black.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Before long, the stage was filled with performers, the lights and sound of the theatre making up a large part of the show’s offering. A minimal set meant everything was delivered through the performance, the lighting and the costumes. A large backdrop with holes punched through it harked back to Turing’s Enigma Code – the light shining through it to awesome effect.

Using large net-like structures, the show depicted the human pods which, in the classic 1999 sci-film film, contained synthetically created humans who powered the neural-interactive world of The Matrix itself. Akin to a maypole at times, the performers, depicting characters including including Neo, Agent Smith, Trinity and Morpheus, danced freeform within their translucent shackles, each connected to the ceiling. Clever use of smoke and lighting worked to develop fantastic scenery while high-energy beats matched the kinaesthetic intensity.

As the choreography began to stutter and performers broke from synchronicity there was a rising sense of a glitch in the Matrix. As Neo is hunted down, choreographed fights broke out between the police, Trinity and Neo. Later, the Woman in Red makes an appearance surrounded by 20 or 30 other performers all dressed in black who intertwined fluid street dance styles like popping, locking and breaking with stripped-down contemporary choreography. Each dancer’s unique fusion of styles became a mode of personal expression.

The main message of the show, Free Your Mind, was truly inspiring and mapped out the potential for transformative change in the world, starting with putting down our phones.

The first half finale crescendoed with flares, a swinging trapeze artist and dark discs falling from the sky over the heads of a dazzled audience. The formerly plain performance space now a cacophony of lights, sounds and smells with a spectacular backdrop that blinked and contorted in at the chaos. This attack of the senses indicating that The Matrix had been blown apart. Rabbits once again appeared and we were invited to follow them out of the theatre and back down into the social area which had been transformed into a Matrix-esque Museum of Curiosity for us to ponder during the 30-minute interval. For those that hadn’t already put two and two together, the realisation dawned that the stalls and circle had been separated by wristbands, with the stalls donning blue and the circle seats red. Who would get to see how deep the rabbit hole goes?

The second half of the action took place in The Warehouse which audience members entered via their respective blue and red doors. The huge space had been divided into two, with a large digital display that ran the length of the room and showed 1970’s computer game, Pong. Aside from the large retro game and the ceiling, the whole room was white, reminiscent of the large empty space in which Neo and Morpheus talk when the Matrix is shut down.

After a short while, two of the barrel rollers appeared with their oversized AA batteries, to boot the matrix back up. The digital screen lifted, whilst playing glitchy imagery of advertisements, computer data, Manchester related footage and of course the recognisable green code of the Matrix. With the screen raised up, the audience now had a clear sight of each other over the stage which ran the entire length of the room, with two large ‘holes’ at each end through which performers would come and go.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Following the films plot, more choreographed fights occurred along the behemoth of a stage. Morpheus was captured by Agent Smith and his cronies, which led to the return of Neo and Trinity, with Neo now a master of the Matrix, kitted out in his new shiny jacket and sunglasses.

After fighting their way through crowds of riot police, bearing helmets with torches resembling the large robots that take care of the human farm in ‘the real world’ outside of The Matrix, the show turned towards a critique of capitalism. One of the themes that was repeated throughout the show was our reliance on our mobile phones. Equipped with oversized phones, the performers were all heavily distracted by their screens, which Morpheus highlighted to Neo through a powerful display in which he controlled the masses by simply moving one of their phones.

The concept of The Matrix, Danny Boyle’s filmic direction, and a cast of incredible performers came together to create something mind-blowingly incredible.

The action on the stage was complimented by the digital display, which hung around twenty-foot above the stage. Advertisements for Coca-Cola were taken from the screen to the stage as a performer appeared dressed as the lady from the advert. She used her bottle of Coca-Cola to lure performers around the stage, demonstrating how the power of marketing and large corporations stemmed back to the first half of the last century at least. Soon she was joined by representations of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Here, the main message of the show, Free Your Mind, was truly inspiring and mapped out the potential for transformative change in the world, starting with putting down our phones and pulling away from the damaging grip that corporations and social media have on us.

This small step away from the plot of The Matrix was perfectly sewn into the film’s ideals, holding up a mirror to the world and asking, are we that much different from the human batteries outlined in the Wachowskis’ late-90’s dystopian nightmare?

Throughout the production, the performance recreated the films “bullet time” visual effects, which was used throughout many of the fight scenes, but most notably when Neo stops the bullets dead, and they drop to the floor. Using the full distance of the stage and the digital display, Free Your Mind’s rendition captured its essence perfectly. The celebratory dance that followed ran deeper than the dazzling footwork – unity had prevailed through raw physicality and rhythm.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

This celebration of Manchester alongside the incredible use of Aviva Studios, the concept of The Matrix, Danny Boyle’s filmic direction, and a cast of incredible performers came together to create something mind-blowingly incredible. I for one, will definitely be heading back to see it again.

If that wasn’t enough, Factory International’s creative engagement director Julia Turpin and creative director, Kee Hong came to have a chat with us after the show. This was made possible through the awe-inspiring work and commitment of Mel Whitehead from The Old Electric in Blackpool, who has recently partnered with Factory to bridge the gap between Blackpool and Manchester’s bubbling creative crock pots.

For tickets and show times, head to the Factory International website here.

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  • Show Comments (1)

  • Mully

    Only heard about this yesterday, and reading this review’s making me want to head down and see it for sure. Always fascinating to see how something can be translated to a different medium and updated for a new era as well. Great review!

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