Free Your Mind

Michael 'Mikey J' Asante, Danny Boyle, Es Devlin, Sabrina Mahfouz and Kenrick 'H20' Sandy
Factory International
Aviva Studios

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Corey Owens as Neo and Nicey Belgrave as Trinity Credit: Tristram Kenton
Ian Harris as Alan Turing and company Credit: Tristram Kenton
Imprisoned in the pods Credit: Tristram Kenton
Mikey Ureta as Agent Smith and company Credit: Tristram Kenton
Kristine Berget as Lady in the Red Dress and company Credit: Tristram Kenton
Act I finale Credit: Tristram Kenton
Act II in the Warehouse Credit: Tristram Kenton
Kenrick 'H2O' Sandy as Morpheus, Lauren Stewart as 1950 Housewife and Corey Owens as Neo Credit: Tristram Kenton
Nicey Belgrave as Trinity fighting the police Credit: Tristram Kenton
Corey Owens as Neo fights Mikey Ureta as Agent Smith Credit: Tristram Kenton
The cast of Free Your Mind disappearing into the screens for the finale Credit: Tristram Kenton

Manchester's newest venue wanted to open with something spectacular, and it has certainly achieved that with a production that shows off two large performance spaces with what seems like a cast, crew and production team of hundreds. Danny Boyle is, of course, the household name in the programme, but his co-creators and designers are all pretty well-known and in demand in the world of theatre.

Free Your Mind is based on the 1999 film The Matrix, written and directed by the Wachowskis, but this almost wordless dance adaptation injects some of the ideas and fears of AI in the 2020s, opening with an AI recreation of Alan Turing on a 1940s TV set (not exactly 'deep fake' AI as his voice and mouth were saying different things) talking about the Manchester-linked history of computing, from the use of punched cards in the Jacquard looms during the Industrial Revolution to the creation of 'Baby', the early computer built at the University of Manchester in 1948 that brought Turing to the city. Ian Harris dances as Turing, until circles drop out of the backdrop and crash to the floor to turn it into a giant punched card.

The rest of the show follows roughly the events in the film, in which humans are unknowingly plugged into a computer simulation of the earth—the Matrix—while their bodies are in a giant life-support system, but it would be difficult for anyone not familiar with the original to work out what is going on. The pods where the human bodies are stored are shown by dancers writhing, trapped in giant stockings attached to the ceiling. Neo (Corey Owens) appears in the midst of this, before meeting Trinity (Nicey Belgrave) from the rebel group who have escaped into the 'real' world but have ways of entering the simulation.

Agent Smith (Mikey Ureta) and his men in black, the 'agents', are avatars controlled by the computer to police the virtual world. The voice of Hugo Weaving, who played this part in the film, explains about the development of the Matrix and how it decided to take control from the humans: "every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not... Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure." A lot of people may think he has a point.

This builds into a spectacular finale, with Kristine Berget as the slow Lady in the Red Dress in the midst of a stage full of fast-moving black-clad performers and black confetti raining down on the stage and auditorium, before we are told to take all of our belongings as the second half, after the interval, is not in the Hall (the main theatre) but in the Warehouse.

The audience is led to this space via two different staircases, depending on whether they were given a red or a blue armband, to find themselves standing on either side of a catwalk stage spanning the full 64 metre length of the Warehouse, with entirely white walls and a long screen showing a Manchester montage to the opening section of "Blue Monday" by New Order.

Morpheus (Kenrick 'H2O' Sandy), leader of the rebels, meets and trains Neo. Lauren Stewart is 1950s Housewife, dancing jerkily as though there are glitches in the Matrix's creation of her. A more modern 'perfect' world representation has crowds of people walking round staring at their phones—as was a young woman stood near to me, filming sections of the show vertically on one of the widest stages I have ever seen.

There is much more, including Morpheus's capture, fights with the armed police and then a final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith before the whole cast become computer images on the descending screen.

The combination of the concept of the film with ideas about modern AI is cleverly done and works well enough for some of the arguments, if not the overall narrative, to come across even to those not familiar with the film. It is visually very spectacular, combining sharp, varied choreography from Kenrick 'H2O' Sandy with impressive set design from Es Devlin and costumes by Gareth Pugh, lit by Lucy Carter. The music by Michael 'Mikey J' Asante drops comfortably into many different styles, from hip-hop to jazz to atmospheric film score, with the build-up to the ending sounding like a Philip Glass piece, and Gareth Fry has obtained pin-sharp sound from the new systems in both theatre spaces.

It's a remarkable feat of management to bring all of these many elements together, but perhaps this is the sort of thing a film director at Boyle's level is used to dealing with. On the level of spectacle, it succeeds, and the commitment of the performances, including those from the "Manchester residents", cannot be faulted, although, despite raising some interesting ideas, the story that links them remains elusive, and so it's hard to really feel anything for characters we never really get to know.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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