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1st November 2023

Free Your Mind Review: Equally beautiful and terrifying

Free Your Mind – Danny Boyle’s immersive, hip-hop dance version of The Matrix, which opens Factory International – is one of the boldest pieces of theatre you will ever see
Free Your Mind Review: Equally beautiful and terrifying
Photo: Tristram Kenton @ Factory International

The Matrix is one of the most iconic films of all time. Now, it has been turned into an immersive, hip-hop dance show by Danny Boyle – one of the most iconic directors of all time.

Free Your Mind is the opening show of Aviva Studios, the home of Factory International. I attended a press conference and guided tour at the venue earlier in the day. Hearing from the creative team and seeing the various spaces got me especially excited – but nothing can prepare you for the sheer majesty of this show.

The show takes place in three different spaces (spoilers ahead). The pre-show and interval performances take place in the foyer. Expect to see people rolling around on batteries, performers in white bunny costumes, ladies in red, people somehow balancing on walls, and ‘The Keymaker’ (I don’t know her).

Having never seen The Matrix before, these references were lost on me, but they are no doubt epic easter eggs for those who have seen the film. But whilst I was bewildered, I was also captivated. I had no idea what was going on – and there was so much going on – but I was in awe of the artistry. From the second you set foot inside Aviva Studios, you are sent down the rabbit hole and into The Matrix.

Intervals generally allow you to escape from the world of a show for 20 minutes, but this interval was very much a part of the performance, it kept the momentum alive. The creatives’ intention, though, was to use as much of the building as possible to showcase its infinite possibilities for artists.

The first act takes place in the Hall, which looks like a traditional theatre over two levels but is a very versatile space. The act opens with famed codebreaker Alan Turing on a flickering TV screen (which the guy next to me told me is another easter egg) – before he is brought to life physically whilst remaining onstage digitally. He explains, via voice-over, Manchester’s history as a birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and now the digital revolution, given the city’s unique place in the rise of the machine.

Photo: Tristram Kenton @ Factory International

This is followed by a series of dance montages, each unique, all high velocity. The final segment verges on terrifying, before the cute/creepy bunnies reappear and escort us out of the space. The second act has an opening which is even more Mancunian: New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ accompanies a montage of the city’s cultural moments of significance.

This act takes place in the Warehouse, which is going to be used primarily as a gig venue. There is a walkway in the middle of the space (a traverse stage, to be specific), with audience members sitting or standing on either side. The walkway has two entrances but the dancers sometimes appear from the pit. Sitting upon the stage is a block of screens, as long as the stage itself.

The act, performed on what is essentially a catwalk, feels like a fashion show at times; like a showcase of Gareth Pugh’s fabulous fashion designs, which sometimes seem to mimic Jean Paul Gaultier or Vivienne Westwood. Pugh’s costumes are stylish and sometimes outlandish; he perfectly captures the campness of the The Matrix.

The choreography, by Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy MBE is some of the best I have ever seen. Some of the dance numbers are less engaging than others but a two-hour-long piece must have a variety of levels. It can’t always be at 100%. There need to be softer moments so that the big ones are more impactful.

Photo: Tristram Kenton @ Factory International

I particularly loved the segment which saw the dancers vogue a little, whilst dressed in vogue ballroom attire. There is as much diversity in dance styles as there is diversity in the cast. The acoustics of both venues are incredible, allowing Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante’s (MBE) sublime score to take charge.

The stage designs are minimalistic, making the performers the focus, whilst the pieces around the venue are visually striking. Es Devlin CBE RDI sure lives up to her reputation as one of the best in the business.

The dance piece has words by Sabrina Mahfouz FRSL – they are few and far between but every line will shake you to the core, especially the ones about Manchester.

Sound and lighting – which come from Gareth Fry and Lucy Carter, respectively – really bring The Matrix to life. Everything is brought together by acclaimed director Danny Boyle – an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy Award and Satellite Award winner.

The six creatives work together in tandem and create something spectacular, brought to life by a 50-strong team of dazzling dancers, led by the remarkable Corey Owens as Neo, “The One”. The female lead, Trinity, is portrayed by the brilliant Nicey Belgrave, whilst iconic antagonist Morpheus is portrayed by the captivating Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy (yes, the choreographer).

The other principal performers are the marvellous Mikey Ureta (Agent Smith), the incredible Ian Harris (Alan Turing), the stellar Kristine Berget (Lady in the Red Dress), and the wonderful Lauren Stewart (1950s Housewife). The latter is my favourite character; she is simultaneously glamorous and terrifying – like the Bride in Black and his (yes, his) mother, the Woman in White, in Insidious.

If you’ve never seen The Matrix (like yours truly), you might be a bit lost, but you will still be able to understand much of the show’s commentary. The Matrix follows computer hacker Neo, who discovers the dark truth of reality. This idea has never been more timely, with the increase in artificial intelligence – especially the strides and advancements made just this year.

The piece’s criticism of the digital age is especially pertinent in the second half, with zombie-like masses stumbling onstage as they stare inanely into their mobile phones. Meanwhile, Amazon orders stack up into monster form.

It’s all equally beautiful and terrifying: the message being that there is more than meets the eye and what appears delightful can be insidious and sinister.

Ironically, there were unsurprisingly members of the audience who are so overwhelmed by the spectacle and determined to capture it that they pay little attention to the sociopolitical commentary, reproducing exactly what the piece is criticising, by filming much of the dancing, rather than watching (and understanding) it.

By locating the story in Manchester, even those of us who have never seen the film (it came out the year I was born – give me a break!) can connect and relate to it.

Those who have seen the film might be frustrated if they are expecting Free Your Mind to be a relatively straightforward adaptation that merely swaps speech for dance. Rather, it is very much a dance interpretation of the film’s themes and ideas and a theatrical reproduction of its visuals and iconography. The viewer is asked to connect it all; they are asked to think and connect the dots – the segments of this non-linear production.

This is not to say that the piece values style over substance. There is so much substance – too much to process, in fact – but the non-traditional storytelling risks alienating those who are less experimental. You could say that the piece is style and substance over storytelling!

This has cost Free Your Mind a star from some reviewers. But the ambition and artistry of the piece are so awe-inspiring and wonderfully overwhelming that I am willing to overlook the shortcomings of the storytelling and award the piece 5/5.

Take my word for it: if you go to see anything at the theatre, see this. Go down the rabbit hole and enter The Matrix – you will never want to leave!

Free Your Mind runs at Aviva Studios until November 5 2023.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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