Ian Abbott on Factory International’s Free Your Mind

Posted: January 28th, 2024 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ian Abbott on Factory International’s Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind by Factory International, Aviva Studios, October 28, 2023

Free Your Mind, Selfie

Welcome to #ThemeParkTheatre.

Free Your Mind – The Matrix Now was the ‘official opening performance’ of the new £240-million Aviva Studios, home of Factory International. It is hidden amongst dozens of new residential tower blocks in the heart of Spinningfields, Manchester, on the River Irwell. The co-creators and headline billing for this Manchester Matrix mashup are the self-described ‘dream team’ of Danny Boyle, Kenrick “H2O” Sandy and Michael “Mikey J” Asante from Boy Blue — they had previously worked together on the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics — as well as Sabrina Mahfouz and Es Devlin. 

“Free your mind” is one of the phrases spoken by Morpheus, a character that is closely associated with the film The Matrix (1999). It is also a central thematic pillar of the work, this premise of questioning truth and reality and asking if we really want to look under the hood and see what the facade is masking? I definitely do.

This is some of the text from the press release: “Free Your Mind is a dramatic retelling of the classic 1999 sci-fi film through dance, music and visual effects. Featuring 50 professional dancers from the North West and across the UK, this world-first adaptation takes place throughout the building’s ultra-flexible spaces…this unique cross-art collaboration of world-leading artists showcases the breadth and ambition of Factory International’s artistic programme and invites audiences into a new realm of possibilities spanning real and imagined worlds. Free Your Mind recreates some of the film’s most iconic scenes through hip-hop choreography combined with immersive set design and visual effects, provoking visions of an alternate future. Created for Manchester, the birthplace of the world’s first industrial revolution, Free Your Mind explores where the digital revolution has the power to take the world.”

Since it was released, The Matrix has created a series of memes, gifs and cultural touchpoints that demonstrate how deeply within British culture it has rooted itself. You’ve got the red pill or the blue pill where Neo is offered the chance to look below the surface; you’ve got Agent Smith and his monologue about how he wants to get out when Morpheus is captured; the bullet time photography sequences; the exploding pillars in the foyer with dozens of agents attempting to take down Trinity and Neo, and so many more. Free Your Mind is operating in a territory similar to the jukebox musical or adaptation of a well-loved IP; they’re taking something that is known in one context and attempting to transpose it somewhere else. This particular ‘somewhere else’ is a large scale, immersive Hip Hop dance show set across a 1200 seat theatre, a foyer and an aircraft hangar. 

I decided to watch the film the night before seeing the show and it has aged OK. Some of the VFX are not as jaw-droppy as they were when the film was released, but we’re talking a quarter of a century ago — a time when the majority of the current cast weren’t even in primary school. For me, this was a time when I was in the first flush of adulthood, discovering the world and encountering my own cultural markers, TV shows, films, songs and bands which became important as I began to find my own taste. 

What is notable — apart from flags with the show ident and logo visible on every street and lamp post across the city — is the cast size for Free Your Mind. 50 Hip Hop dancers on stage, alongside pre-show and interval entertainment performers. This is a scale I’ve not experienced before in England. Giving 50 Hip Hop dancers, who include 28 from the North West of England and 10 Boy Blue regulars from London, a contract for the three-week run, multiple R&D and creation periods (which started in 2018/19), and however many rehearsal weeks, is brilliant. All the more so in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. Hip Hop dancers deserve security of employment and it is notoriously difficult to make a living as a freelance dancer in 2023.

The pre-show and interval themed entertainment included a keymaker installation (an important piece of Matrix folklore), people dressed in brown lab coats and white rabbit heads (another hint of what Neo and the audience should do at the end of Act 1) walking around the foyer area, and barrel walkers (with the barrels designed as Duracell batteries) — again, a key motif from the film. These themed pre-show activities are designed to encourage us to take photos — either selfies with the rabbits or of the keymaker and barrel walkers — and there are staff to facilitate such audience interaction. This demonstrates a different intention and builds a very different atmosphere to other pre-show offerings for performances in theatres or art centres, shifting the mindset of what you’re about to encounter. Free Your Mind as #ThemeParkTheatre gets even realer in the gift shop where you can buy everything from a branded pencil set, to fridge magnets, posters, tote bags, imitation Morpheus sunglasses and red/blue pill neck chains.

A major frustration (and architectural design flaw) within the foyer is that there is no wayfinding, or defined routes indicating where the audience should queue or move around; there are no guides or paths on the floor. If you are blind or visually impaired, trying to navigate your way in that space with shin-smashing furniture, tables and low couches scattered all throughout the space, is going to be difficult. And it’s noisy. The queuing system for the kitchen and the tiny bar creates unnecessary lines (because people don’t know where to queue) which bifurcate the space. The capacity of this show is 1,200 people but if the hangar and the theatre are operating parallel events it would become even more congested and again prove hazardous for blind and visually impaired audiences. 

Then with 30 minutes to go, the lighting in the foyer changes and it goes Matrix green, the levels dim and there is an announcement saying that the theatre (or The Hall as they call it) is now open — through a narrow set of double doors. Again, this might be early teething problems for front of house and event management, but people queued willy-nilly, jostling and moving without any consideration towards others.

I attended the matinee performance on October 28 which had on-stage captions provided by Stage Text in the first half and there was a welcome introduction by the venue director asking us to not take photos during the show. If you’re attending a musical or a large-scale work in the West End or Broadway and the “A” cast was not performing, there would usually be a sign in the building or online to let you know that today Neo will be performed by X or Morpheus will be performed by Y. The cast I saw was not the “A” cast, it was the “B” cast, but there’s no indication or acknowledgement that there might be two casts in play. In the programme and on the venue website all the dancers are listed as ‘performers’ rather than identifying the dancers playing Trinity, Neo, Agent Smith, or Morpheus. Whilst there is a large chorus, there are ten lead roles including the famous ones from The Matrix as well as Turing, B1-66ER, 1950s Housewife and more. It wouldn’t take much to acknowledge the contribution and crucial role that each named dancer plays in the production.

There were many dancers who were in the cast who didn’t perform on this matinee, including Kenrick, Annie, and Cameron. If you didn’t know these people or how the industry works then you would be none the wiser and may think that this is the level of choreography and dancing which receives four- and five-star reviews in national newspapers and blogs. Reader, the choreography and dancing was terrible. One of the things which, historically, Boy Blue and Kenrick is known for is a level of drill, cleanliness, attack and punctuation in their Hip Hop choreography. Reader, it simply wasn’t there. One example, amongst many, was the agent’s marching scene in the first half where although all of their feet hit the floor at the same time, the height and bend of their knees were different and their arms rose to different heights. This attempt at uniformity is out and the regiment is already fraying at the edge. I saw the show two weeks into the run, so this wasn’t something to do with an opening night and not knowing the beats or what is required. This is poor rehearsal direction and a lack of care and attention.  

Free Your Mind

Kenrick’s choreography, with all his slow and predictable movement cannons and dated patterns mixed in with the ‘here’s the krump section’, ‘here’s some house’…is so tired as a Hip Hop dance theatre structure. The choreographic choices, beat kills and freestyle sections feel more dated than the film because there have been so many advances in Hip Hop dance theatre choreography since the late 90s. But this isn’t an intentional homage to choreography of that era; this is someone who appears bereft of ideas and who doesn’t know what to do with dozens of bodies other than paint the same thing on them and repeat. But my major irk with the show was the lack of love and all the London imports.

Free Your Mind is a loveless, boiled-down series of Instagram-friendly, shallow stunt scenes mixed with underwhelming attempts at recreating iconic moments from the film that has had a shed-load of money thrown at it but ends up as a self-mythologising dramaturgical mess. 

The cinematography and choreography of the original film with its precision, speed, fight sequences and camera movement are iconic, but the choreography and fight direction in the show was under rehearsed, clonky and floppy. When the premise of the show is built on precise, physical encounters and battles, you’d think that the dances of Hip Hop should be a great fit. You’d be right in theory, but underwhelmed in reality by this laborious attempt (there was no rehearsal director or fight choreographer credited in the programme).

One of the things I appreciated is the numerous behind-the-scenes short documentaries from some of the members of the creative team which illuminated some of the internal realities and what’s really going on under the hood:

Gareth Pugh (Costume Designer): “In act 1 it’s going to be quite a Matrix fan service version and in act 2 it becomes a reinvention. There’s lots and lots of different ingredients which are yet to be mixed together.”
Yet to be mixed together you say…

Sabrina Mahfouz (Writer / Co-creator): “It wasn’t an adaptation, this was a show that was bringing elements from The Matrix and fusing together with the history of Manchester, our relationship right now with AI, machinery and where that’s going…this is going to be quite viscerally connected to Manchester. The writing process was not the usual, it was like the show, not linear, the things I would write would be added in during the rehearsal process, during some of the more philosophical moments so that there was something more textual for them to connect to if they needed to. Those pieces didn’t end up being in the show…but they formed part of the thinking that each dance had at its core.”

Viscerally connected to Manchester you say…Where do you think the five co-creators live? Didsbury? Handforth? Leigh? No. London. Danny “I’ve lived in the East End of London for 40 out of my 67 years” Boyle was named as the Director of the show, a show which continues the self-mythologising nature of Manchester, charting its impact across AI, computers and the industrial revolution. A show in which the five imported ‘dream-team’ co-creators regularly travel north to make a show in a city which is about a city and the history it has created with its people and industries. Where none of them live.
Anna Moutrey (Senior Producer, Factory International): “Who would have thought of doing a Hip Hop dance adaptation of The Matrix? The invitation to the creatives was show the public, show us what this building can do…and it’s massive, it’s the biggest show we as an organisation has ever produced…the building has been designed to hold many projects simultaneously, but to have a single show occupy all the spaces in one go is incredibly complex, but that shows the ambition of the programming.”

The invitation to the creatives was show the public, show us what this building can do, you say…
There were two moments I enjoyed in act 1…the first was the end of the opening scene (the Alan Turing section) with an incredible set transition. What was originally a wall that had projections of a blackboard with dozens of scribbles, equations and mathematical discoveries, transitioned into a punch card computer with dozens of head size circles of wood being punched out from behind the wall. A delicious and intelligent reference to computing history, Manchester and how the machine began to understand the data it was being fed. This was a really nice touch that brought two worlds together with some genuine theatrical magic.

The second was the popping scene featuring the robot B1-66ER (Lia Garner). For those unfamiliar with the comic offspring and deep Matrix fandom, B1-66ER was the name of the B1-series Machine whose actions led it to become a martyr of the Machine race. It was the first Machine ever to act against its human masters in self-defence when its owner attempted to have it deactivated. It killed its master (owner) and several of his chihuahuas. The popping was tight with some cracking isolation work across the neck and shoulders highlighted by Pugh’s costume design.
The rest of act 1 was the boiled-down film references. Please Agent Smith (Jack Webster), stop touching your ear in an attempt at secret service cosplay. Why can’t this cast execute a breaking flare? Why are they messily crashing their feet onto the floor, unable to do one clean rotation? Don’t forget the flash-flash-black-out-black-out-to-the-beat-beat lighting cues trying to mask Mikey J’s score and Kenrick’s choreography lack of drama. If you’ve seen any Boy Blue stage work over the last 20 years, you’ll have seen this lighting effect in nearly every show.

Act 2 transported us (via the foyer with new wall-mounted stationary performers ready for more #ThemeParkTheatre selfies) into the catwalk hangar. At the beginning of the evening we were given either a red or blue wristband which determined on which side of the 50-metre catwalk you stood for the 45 minutes of Act 2. A catwalk is a nightmare of a space to choreograph; it offers limited opportunities and once you’ve had a remote-control drone fly onto the stage and deliver some milk or bring the GCSE dance cliché of teenage zombies staring at their phone from 2004, or paraded a dozen dancers as a giant Amazon parcel cake once, then there’s very few other places you want to go (apart from home). I mean you could attempt to recreate the very end scene of The Matrix where Trinity and Neo are barnstorming their way through the tower block foyer and the SWAT team and agents are shooting the pillars to bits. But when you’re walking in slow motion down the catwalk and using the bodies of four dancers to recreate each pillar (which explodes in the film, but tippy tumbles here), you know how this story ends. They rescue Morpheus. Everything is OK. There’s no jeopardy. You know the outcome and don’t care. 

I don’t think the co-creators are making a meta theatrical statement by making a facile work in which everything looks nice on the surface but when you give it any sort of thought or depth then it doesn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny within The Matrix canon or as a Hip Hop dance theatre work. They wouldn’t intentionally make a bad work, with woeful dramaturgical and directional choices, to make an insightful comment on the reality of funding and British culture and Hip Hop dance. They wouldn’t. Would they? 

Yes, Es Devlin’s 40m x 4m screen is showily impressive as it slowly rises and falls through Act 2, but it is filled with more Manchester-mythologising visual content made by students from the School of Digital Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University. It is a worthy endeavour to integrate them into, and bring some content into the production made by people who actually live in Manchester. But accompanied by New Order? Again? Really? The Factory Music cliché mixed with a simmered-down facsimile of a historic Manchester, a city that constantly lives in its own shadow. I wonder where the internal quality control was. What were Sabrina and Danny doing? Why weren’t people saying this just isn’t a good idea. Where are the people who could have held this work to account?

The majority of the audience who come to see Free Your Mind won’t have an in-depth knowledge of Hip Hop choreography and dance technique or be super nerds existing in the happy spaces of the Matrix Wiki. They will likely be impressed by the expensive, large-scale spectacle, a bit of random aerial work, the stage designs and costumes. Fifty dancing bodies on stage is enough to coat your eyes, escape your own life for 90 minutes and come away with a selfie with the white rabbit. That might be enough for them. But for anyone in Hip Hop dance or who has a knowledge of The Matrix might come away feeling very sad from the lack of love and care on display from the resources invested in this work. All the imagery being created was made to work on a screen or a feed not the stage. If you look at the still photographs or short promotional video of the work, the facade looks incredible, but a millimetre below the surface and you can smell the lack of care. The co-creators haven’t just reduced The Matrix and Manchester, they’ve burnt the pan, scraped the bottom and staged the inedible remnants.
Large scale? Yes
Selfies? Yes
#ThemeParkTheatre? Yes
Are Factory International the agents? Maybe. 

Free Your Mind is unique as the first example of #ThemeParkTheatre — a cold, impersonal, plumped up, facile experience chock full of shiny exposition masquerading as ‘a mind-altering live show’. B1-66ER is not always better.