Combining Middle English mystery play, orchestra, opera singers, Manchester icon Lemn Sissay and a vast array of young and amateur performers, Noah’s Flood – co-produced by Manchester Collective and Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low – feels like a quintessentially MIF experience: eclectic, surprising and unique.
It is staged in the industrial surroundings of Depot Mayfield – a venue that has been used to great effect in previous festivals. The dark, cavernous space enhances both the drama of the Bible story and the epic, thrilling sounds of Benjamin Britten’s opera.
Written in the late 1950s and based on one of the Chester mystery plays, Britten’s opera is the ideal choice for a community work. As Sissay explains in his introduction, it was intended to be performed in non-elitist, communal spaces – halls and churches, not theatres – and Britten ensures the audience participates in this community by including three hymns (which were sung with a surprising level of enthusiasm).
Musically and theatrically, the highlights of the work are the storm, which takes us from dissonant percussion to solemn hymn; the rousing Kyrie Eleison, which accompanies a Lion King-esque procession through the audience of 180 young performers dressed as animals; and the triumphant Alleluia chorus as the waters subside and the rainbow appears, accompanied by brightly chiming handbells. The singing is ably led by Morgan Pearse as Noah and Heather Lowe as Mrs Noah, whose stunning voices carry clearly through the huge space, while Sissay – white-suited and reading his part from a ladder above the stage – is excellently cast as God.
Screens display the Middle English libretto which, while not the most accessible text, connects us to the medieval mystery play origins of the work – and with its familiar plot, hopefully little gets lost in translation. The screens are also used to display video of rising floodwaters and trees logged for the building of the ark. These images – and the choice of modern costumes – position this production in a frighteningly non-distant future, where God sends the flood to teach humanity a lesson for its neglect and abuse of the planet.
The staging is generally pared back, a sensible choice given the sheer volume of performers; the ark is created effectively with just a net, dropped down in front of the cast and plunging them into gloomy shadow. It doubles as a canvas for the projection of crashing waves during the storm, and the moment it is lifted up and the ark’s occupants are freed adds to the joy of the finale.
Cast, creatives and all involved in Noah’s Flood should be proud of pulling off such an ambitious undertaking, which showcases not just community spirit and talent but also the inventive, inspiring spirit of MIF.