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After the bomb

The makers of the acclaimed Angel Meadow return to Manchester with a new performance – and this time, finds Kate Feld, it’s personal.

Art isn’t something you can schedule in – it happens to you. The trick is in recognising it when it happens. Theatre director Louise Lowe understands how the artist must always be alert to the small moments arising unlooked for in a day that can, if you let them, change everything. Lowe runs the acclaimed Irish theatre company ANU, whose next production at HOME originated in a chance encounter and an unexpected remark.

As Lowe tells it, in early 2014 the company were in Manchester investigating locations for their first site-specific production for HOME, the critically acclaimed Angel Meadow. She was on crutches following a leg injury, so rather than accompany the rest of the company into a building she waited outside with Trevor, a man who was showing them around a number of properties. “We were chatting away and suddenly he goes quiet and he says to me: ‘why did you do it?’”.

It transpired that Trevor was talking about the IRA bombing of the city centre in 1996, an act he characterised as ‘the Irish turning on the Irish’. Lowe found herself apologising to him, got annoyed with herself for apologising to him, and initiated a conversation in which the man explained that, although the event had brought change some considered positive, it still hurt – and as he saw it, the city had been divided ever since.

Their conversation stayed with Lowe. She talked about the bombing with many other people while in Manchester and discussed it with the theatre team at HOME, and when they met in London at the 2014 UK Theatre Awards (where she was up for Best Director for Angel Meadow) HOME’s Artistic Director for Theatre, Walter Meierjohann and Lowe decided that “it might form the basis for an interesting and ambitious enquiry”. And so in June 2016 we’ll have On Corporation Street: a production that looks at a critical moment in the history of the city in a way that raises questions and provokes discussion, but, Lowe stresses, doesn’t set out to determine why the IRA bombing happened or make a judgement about whether it was good or bad.

On Corporation Street would be ambitious enough alone. But it’s to be the second part in a triptych of theatrical performances. The other two, to be performed in Dublin, address the Easter Rising of 1916 and the commemoration of it in 1966. Taken as a whole the endeavour will investigate terrorism, radicalisation and rebellion; dig into how we collectively construct a narrative around an event; and shine a light onto some of Irish and British history’s darkest corners. “What connects all three shows is the notion of uninvited chaos,” Lowe says, “of events happening to civilians in their homes or their city that they have to respond to.”

Coming during the centenary of the rebellion and the 20th anniversary of the Manchester bomb, the project has a kind of inevitability about it that adds weight – this company doing this work in 2016. It’s a spectacular idea that won ANU funding from the Irish Arts Council, but the scope of it, at this stage in proceedings, must be sobering. “The ambition of this is absolutely terrifying… it’s probably silly ambitious,” Lowe admits. “Put all of these things together and they become huge and magnificent and stirring and exhausting all at once.”

On Corporation Street is a collaborative production, which is how ANU works. In their unusual kind of theatre making, every member of the company is involved in the research, design, development and performance of a work, and as often as possible the audience is too. Without artistic rigour this could so easily dissolve into chaos, so having an avatar like Lowe at the helm is crucial. While at the time of writing much is still taking shape, what we do know is that it will be an immersive performance featuring Irish and local actors that uses different locations within HOME, and that it will likely feature audiences and performers splintering off into small groups and then coming back together. The production will draw on material collected at four ‘objective enquiries’ the company will convene in Manchester over winter and spring 2016, chaired by Catriona Crowe, Head of Special Projects at The National Archives of Ireland. At these events they’ll invite city officials, business owners, police, witnesses, academics and members of the public to discuss the IRA bombing and its legacy.

The word enquiry is a recurring one in our conversation and it feels apt for the kind of theatre ANU makes, one Lowe says is seeking “a different kind of communion with audiences” than that afforded by the traditional model where they sit passively in their seats and are given a performance to take on board. “I suppose what I’m trying to do is create environments where truthful exchanges and interesting engagements can happen between the performer and the viewer – exchanges where no one knows where the power lies.” Anyone in the audience at Angel Meadow will have experienced that strange push-pull dynamic between performer and audience – an experience both thrilling and unsettling in its ambiguity. This is theatre as urgent inquiry, then: fierce and rigorous, demanding and difficult to predict.

On Corporation Street runs from Fri 10 – Sat 25 Jun. Find out more and book tickets here.

Image by @manchesterfire

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