Creative Tourist’s Kate Feld discovers a season of site-specific performances coming soon to the streets where you live – and reckons they pave the way for the kind of theatre we will see more of at HOME.
Walter Meierjohann, the artistic director for theatre at HOME, admits he’s still finding his way around his new city – and getting used to the weather. But he’ll be an expert on Manchester soon enough, because there’s surely no better way to get to know a place than by overseeing an ambitious site-specific programme set within it. And, with five productions planned over eight months, this year is going to be an exciting one for the city’s theatre lovers. In conversation, Meierjohann’s enthusiasm for his new role, and his desire to make HOME a top-tier theatre, is immediately apparent.
This city is already home (erm, sorry) to extraordinarily good theatre. Born in Amsterdam and having spent much of his career in Europe – including stints at the Dresden State Theatre, the Residenz Theater in Munich and then at the Young Vic – Meierjohann brings with him a European way of doing things that should prove a breath of fresh air to Mancunian audiences. “I see a lot of opportunities here,” Meierjohann says. “I’ve been living out of a suitcase for so long, and I love working abroad, but this is a step up. I feel like I’m doing something different.”
First out of the gate is a site-specific work that explores the culture of Angel Meadow, the predominantly Irish, Victorian slum that occupied Ancoats, and invests this evocative setting with contemporary themes. Fittingly, it’s being performed by an Irish company – Dublin’s ANU Productions, whose artistic director, Louise Lowe, is among the finest theatre makers of her generation. The Irish Times said ANU is responsible for the “most searing works of the past decade”. As first productions go, it’s a nail biter for a new director to take on. “They properly research their productions, then they devise and write them – well, there’s no script, so you just have to trust them. Talk about risk,” Meierjohann jokes.
Friedrich Engels called Angel Meadow “hell upon earth” – a fetid swamp where immigrant families who’d fled the Great Famine eked out a meagre living. Violent gangs stalked the streets, prostitution was rife and children played football with skulls purloined from pauper’s graves. The contemporary reworking of this nightmare landscape will take place in June in an unusual site, one that will make being part of the audience a very intimate experience.
In September, Meierjohann moves on to a version of Romeo and Juliet at Victoria Baths, set in “not the bright, beautiful Renaissance but an Eastern European criminal underworld, with the wonderful music of the Balkans.” He mentions the work of Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica (Black Cat, White Cat, Underground) as having the quality he wants to evoke here, and it’ll be interesting to see how he gets to grips with the challenging space of the listed Baths; designer Ti Green (who worked on Orlando at the Royal Exchange) has form in this area.
From October, the action moves to Number One First Street. The office block where the Library Theatre Company performed Manchester Lines plays host to HOME’s theatrical activity until the new building is ready – providing performance space for its own and other events, such as January’s re:play festival. But Meierjohann will also be looking ahead: week-long sessions with companies such as ATC and collaborations with BE FESTIVAL (Birmingham European Festival) will serve as “an engine room” for future productions.
Later in the autumn, HOME hosts Actors Touring Company’s production of The Events, which The Guardian picked as its best play of 2013. Meierjohann says he’s delighted to be bringing this intense two-hander to Manchester. “I’m interested in forming partnerships with people I respect, and I respect them,” he says of ATC.
So, beyond 2014, what can we expect from theatre at HOME? Meierjohann is interested in the intersection of theatre and dance, while his creative team includes dramaturgs – a European institution that’s becoming increasingly popular in British theatre. Dramaturgs collaborate with a director, and keep them abreast of developments on the world stage; Meierjohann has Petra Jane Tauscher on his team alongside the New York-based Raphael Martin, and their contributions are already paying dividends.
But at the moment Meierjohann is consumed with the practical details of staging theatre out in the city. “The whole site-specific season is a taste of things to come,” he says, pointing out the theme that links each production: Angel Meadow is about the Irish community, Romeo and Juliet is about conflict between communities, The Events is about a broken community, and will feature performances from several Manchester community choirs. Before its new building is even complete, Meierjohann and team are already getting to grips with important work – theatre reflecting, interrogating and exploring the idea of belonging. For a theatre called HOME, that’s not a bad start.