He got really quiet and he said to me ‘Why did you do it?’ It transpired he was talking about the Manchester bombing
Irish theatre company ANU bring their show about the Manchester bombing to the city where it happened, writes Padraic Killeen
ANU Theatre Company have never shied away from big ideas. The Dublin company’s stunning breakthrough came a few years ago with the Monto Cycle — a series of four immersive theatre pieces that examined the living history of Dublin’s inner city. Somewhere in the middle of that incredible cycle of shows, they also found the time to stage 13 individual pieces to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Lockout.
This year — a huge year for Irish history in case you’ve been off Rip Van Winkling somewhere — ANU are chasing another big idea. They’ve created a conceptual ‘triptych’ of shows exploring blindspots in the history of the 1916 Rising, as well as its contested legacy. In April, they premiered Sunder, a piece which focused on the largely unknown story of Seán McLoughlin, a 20-year-old soldier made commandant general of the Irish Republican Army in the final hours of the Rising.
This week the company open the second of their three Rising pieces. Taking place in the Home arts centre in Manchester, On Corporation Street marks the 20th anniversary of the provisional IRA’s devastating bombing of the English city. With a strong visual aesthetic, the piece engages with fragments from over 200 witness, testimonies that ANU have gathered, and it examines the regeneration of Manchester in the years after the bomb. Notably, it’s also a rare opportunity to see ANU – who have staked their reputation on immersive site-specific theatre — presenting work on an actual theatre stage.
After so many years performing out on city streets, alleys, and assorted nooks and crannies, artistic director Louise Lowe describes the prospect of working on a stage as “brilliant and terrifying in equal measure”.
“It feels remarkably challenging and different from the body of work we’ve been doing for the past number of years.”
Notably, this is ANU’s second time producing work in Manchester. Indeed, it was during the run of their immersive piece Angel Meadow in 2014 that the idea for On Corporation Street came into being. Lowe recalls an innocuous exchange with a local man that suddenly took a strange turn.
“We were discussing how parts of Manchester look a bit like Brooklyn in New York and he was saying that the area had been used in many film sets, including Captain America. So he started talking about this big explosion scene in Captain America, and then he got really quiet and he said to me ‘Why did you do it?’ And I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it transpired that he was talking about the Manchester bombing. And I said ‘Well, I’m sorry’. And then there was this really weird moment where I was asking myself ‘What am I saying sorry for? I’ve nothing to do with this in any way.’ So then I said ‘No, I’m not sorry’. And then it became even more awkward, because it sounded like I was trying to say ‘I agree with’.
“So it went from ‘I’m sorry’ to ‘I’m not sorry’ to me really having to wrench out how I felt about it and where I stood myself.”
Manchester, of course, boasts a huge Irish community, for whom the IRA’s terrorist act was especially sensitive. One of the testimonies featured in the show, for instance, is that of an Irish nurse — a woman who had lived in the city for many years and had raised her family there – who on the day of the bombing was suddenly asked by a colleague would she ever consider ‘going home’.
Each of the three pieces in the triptych explore how “acts of rebellion or terror impact on the lives of the civilian or the citizen in their own homes”, says Lowe.
The ‘triptych’ will be completed later this year with These Rooms, a “high octane, immersive dance” piece, co- produced with Limerick’s CoisCeim, that deals with the North King Street Massacre in 1916.