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Danny Boyle’s blockbuster Matrix dance show ‘Free Your Mind’ does exactly what it says on the tin
Zero thoughts, lots of fun
By Sophie Atkinson
Action films are a thrill because for 120 minutes, you don’t have to think. Instead, you get John McClane hurtling down an elevator shaft, Ethan Hunt galloping across the top of a train, plot unfolding too quickly for the viewer to be anything but two eyeballs and a thudding heart. And why wouldn’t this be great? Aren’t any number of life’s best moments marked by mental blankness (deep sleep, orgasms, the first pull on a cigarette, the final stretch of a marathon)? So too, with Factory International’s show, Free Your Mind – a dance remake of The Matrix. It lives up to its name: your mind is set free from its shackles, and how! No thoughts, just fun.
Factory International is the organisation that runs Manchester International Festival, and it’s a world-first premiere — making it a suitably big deal to be the first performance at Aviva Studios. Aviva what? That’s Manchester’s huge new £242m arts venue and Factory International’s home — which I wrote about in July. Superstar director Danny Boyle has directed Free Your Mind — you’ll probably know him from Trainspotting or Slumdog Millionaire or The Beach or the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Free Your Mind may not be a Hollywood blockbuster but in the context of Manchester’s arts scene, it is undoubtedly a huge deal — the big name event that has been previewed for well over a year as the starting gun for the biggest new cultural venue built in Britain in a quarter of a century.
I initially found the idea of a dance version of The Matrix baffling — how would you communicate the twisty-turny story through the medium of movement alone? But then I happened upon an interview with Boyle in Dazed, in which he contradicts my own first impression — he says that when you tell people that you’re doing The Matrix as dance it makes sense to them, but initially he didn’t understand why. He continues: “I sort of do now, I think, which is that there’s a discipline in it, a kind of regimented certainty in it, which is numbers, which is a code, which is a kind of algorithm. There’s a pattern, and yet there’s also, running like a river through it, freedom of expression, emerging out of these patterns.”
My first impression isn’t one of patterns, but delicious chaos. It is just after 7pm when the white rabbits spill through the doors. I’m standing in Aviva Studios’ foyer chatting to a member of their PR team when it becomes clear to her that we are at risk of being squished, and she manoeuvres me neatly out of the way. The near-squashing is because the white rabbits — or people in long brown coats and huge white rabbit heads — are accompanied by acrobats steering enormous batteries by jogging on top of them. I expect that the procession will be very big indeed, it has that quality of bombast, of carnival, but it is abruptly aborted and the rabbits, acrobats and brown-coated volunteers scatter about the room.
She has told me that this is the pre-show part; that it is an immersive performance, and that the white rabbits are, obviously, a nod to the film (Keanu Reeves’ Neo is instructed to follow the white rabbit, and does — a white rabbit tattoo). There’s also — she gestures to the far side of the room — a keymaker, another recall for big Matrix fans (a character/programme from the sequels).
Her summary of events has energised me. Are we about to witness a truly immersive experience? Perhaps we will all be forced to reckon with our deepest anxieties about technology, or maybe we will be assigned characters and forced to live in the fake-real world of The Matrix?
Looking around the room, I wilt a little. The members of the procession have dispersed into pairs. A rabbit and a brown-coated volunteer dance forlornly amidst acres of space, while a theatregoer sinks a pint metres to their right, bristling with the effort of avoiding eye contact with them. Aviva Studios is so impossibly big, which in this context, is unfortunate. If Factory International had commissioned five times the number of rabbits and acrobats, if we were surrounded by vast hordes of bopping rabbits, it would have been incredible. This feels closer to wandering round an underpopulated Disneyland, the ground punctuated by the odd character.
It very quickly becomes clear that we are supposed to be taking photos. When anyone approaches a rabbit, they are encouraged by the rabbit’s keeper to have a photo taken with them (it emerges that the keeper is a sort of seeing-eye dog for the rabbit — they are chaperoning them because the rabbits cannot see out of their enormous heads). When anyone approaches the brown-coated worker busily manufacturing keys in his workshop, the same thing happens. Much like the Yayoi Kusama show I reviewed here in the summer, this is work made with an eye to Instagram. Nothing wrong with that, except that this makes it the inverse of an immersive experience — if you’re busy posing for photos, you are probably going to be too busy thinking about not blinking or swerving a double chin to be plunged into a deep and profound alternate reality.
On being instructed to take our seats, the audience surges upstairs to the theatre, which is wonderful. It is enormous — I get a little vertigo finding my seat — but so cleverly designed that it does not feel like a big gloomy warehouse. Through some act of genius, the architect has managed to make this endless expanse feel cosy.
The show opens on Alan Turing delivering an advanced mathematics lecture to us. He is excited to be here since he knows this city is the birthplace of the Manchester Baby — the world’s first electronic stored-program computer (effectively the earliest machine to hold all the same parts you’d get in a modern electronic computer). But Turing — the famous gay computer scientist and father of Artificial Intelligence, you ask? What does he have to do with The Matrix? He’s a convenient mouthpiece for some thoughts about technology and humankind, like how computers don’t care about who we love, so maybe they’re better than humans (lovely sentiment, but surely all tech has the same prejudices as the people programming them?). It soon emerges that Turing is inside the fake world Russian-dolled inside the bleak real world of the film series — and so the show begins.
But wasn’t the entire point of the Matrix film that the fake real world was situated in 1999, when the machines took over? So how is Turing in the fake real world if the fake real world is set in 1999, when he died in the mid 50s? Please, no more questions. This is not a performance a person should attempt to appreciate on a logical level. You will strain something. Instead, you will have an Aviva Studios-sized amount of fun if you crack open a beer and simply let the show wash over you.
The show is only very loosely based on The Matrix, so we get some of the stuff we recognise — Trinity in skintight PVC, beating up the police trying to apprehend her, Neo learning to master his powers — and wackier scenes that attempt to construct a larger world. For example, the first robot who killed his human owner and his human-led trial. For no reason that I can fathom, the robot looks like Charlie Chaplin and has a jaunty little bowler hat on. Even more senselessly, the members of the jury appear to be brandishing…are those light sabers? Isn’t that from an entirely different hugely famous intellectual property? No matter, they’re now choking Charlie with the light sabers. Don’t think too much. Next!
The best parts are the fight scenes, with the performers dancing martial arts and battle scenes weighed down in Matrix costumes with ease. It reminds me of the late 90s, early 00s, when a very specific brand of cool dominated — let’s call it dude cool, though women had it too. Dude cool was about doing something physically intricate with the minimum visible effort: performing an elaborate skateboarding trick or a huge and staggering electric guitar solo. And you, the humble bystander, would crumble in the face of such impressive spectacles, unable to conjure up a more complicated response than: wow. This same sensation persists watching a fight scene danced in slow motion — hands windmill through the air, arms are heavy with invisible machine guns, dancers are suspended in the air by their opponent, legs kicking with balletic grace.
Suddenly it is all over and the lights are up and the loudspeaker blares: Follow the white rabbit. Follow the white rabbit. The rabbits are stationed at all of the exits to the theatre, and once again, I’m hopeful: we’re about to be plunged into the second part of the performance, the interactive bit, that, as in the best action films, we will have no time to gather our thoughts. But no, it’s an interval, and the volunteers encourage you to go get a drink (how much of this is funded by proceeds from the bar? More than in any venue I have ever visited, am I constantly encouraged to go get a drink). I wander round the space, clutching my mandated wine (£5.50, a medium house white), asking various members of the audience what they thought of it so far.
Every single person I speak to is enchanted by the performance, each person more than the last. The Irish half of the couple by the bar’s eyes light up: “Oh god, it was great, wasn’t it?” I raise the light saber thing, and his boyfriend grins. “Oh, that was random, wasn’t it? But so funny.” He’s not even saying it in a piss-taking way, he’s genuinely delighted by it all.
I meet Jamal and Shakeem, who used to volunteer at Factory once upon a time but haven’t done so in a while. They are both so nice and sincere about the show that I start to feel like an agnostic in a room full of Evangelicals, a bad seed. Jamal points out that the show just crescendoed and crescendoed, and both agree it was incredibly creative, and that it’s a good shout to base it on The Matrix, which is a story most people are already familiar with. I meet a couple of Mill members, one of whom points out it’s a wonderful opportunity for audiences, there isn’t enough dance put on in Manchester (true!), the other of whom stresses it’s a great opportunity for local dancers and talent — also true, it features 50 dancers from the North West and “almost 100” participants from Greater Manchester.
The interval, besides interviews, also gives me time to enjoy more of the ambitious art spectacles of Free Your Mind. Have you ever been to Las Ramblas, the big touristy street on Barcelona? If so, perhaps you have seen the human statues — literally, like a guy who’s dressed in old fashioned clothes and painted himself head to toe in grey paint frozen pretending to be a statue for 50 cent tips? Free Your Mind brings the avant-garde spirit of Las Ramblas to Manchester by mounting people in difficult martial arts poses in Matrix garb during the interval. Please refer to the photo above. You’d take a picture of this poor woman, mounted to the wall like antlers in a stately home, and her eyes would be flicking frantically about behind those same sunglasses every twenty-something in the White Hotel now wears.
It was both terrible and impossibly funny, and worst of all, I had nobody — absolutely nobody — to laugh about it with, having been denied a +1 by the Aviva Studios press office. It was at this point that I started to suspect that the enthusiasm of the audience was absolutely correct, even if we had different reasons for our passion for the show. Perhaps Free Your Mind is something entirely new in the history of this city: after all, when has Manchester ever birthed a camp masterpiece before?
But there was no time to mull this over — we were being shepherded into an enormous long room with some sort of catwalk at its centre and divided into groups depending on the colour listed on your wristband. Earlier that day, I had expressed my relief to my boyfriend that Aviva Studios had not decided to put on some sort of Madchester-era event — a Happy Mondays musical, say, or a Stone Roses VR experience. It had suggested maturity on their part to refrain from the sort of relentlessly backward-looking promotion this city is always insisting on doing.
Now, screens descended from the ceiling and my worst fears became reality, as an Adam Curtis-style mash up of video snippets of Cool Manchester played: the Happy Mondays doing a TV performance; Granada Studios; old tourist board footage, ‘Blue Monday’ being pumped out through the speakers. Somehow, this segues back to a much more abstract version of the show we’d seen before the interval.
Instead of The Matrix, we get…something else. A sexy Amazon Prime box writhes down the catwalk, bracketed by ladies in tinfoil arm warmers and those goggles you’re meant to wear in tanning shops. She breaks the fourth wall, bursting into the audience, distributing Amazon Prime packets and I snag one. Inside is a tiny plastic tube of bubbles. I assume that, like Chekhov’s gun, this would not go undeployed by the night’s end — perhaps I and the other packet minions would be required to stand at the side of the stage and issue bubbles while Neo and Trinity kissed — but no. It was just one loose end amongst a rat king of loose ends. More such scenes followed: dancers bopping while taking selfies. Dancers tortured by their evil phones, writhing in pain. Dancers tortured by huge lights being shone at them while they selfied frantically (the downfalls of fame when being an influencer?). A Social Media Villain (X verification tick head; Facebook thumbs up for hands) snarling down the catwalk. Technology? I wouldn’t use it!
By the time they returned to the Matrix stuff I’d sort of lost the plot. It didn’t matter though. None of it mattered. The intricate choreography, the invisible machine guns, the hip-hop freestyling police officers all washed over me, like so many waves. The lights went up and a great cheer sounded from the audience. The applause went on forever, and everyone around me, to the last person, was bright-eyed and flushed, filled with evangelical enthusiasm for Factory International’s first show at its new home. It had been a triumph.