What is Danny Boyle doing in Manchester, directing a huge, hip-hop dance show inspired by The Matrix? It makes more sense than you might imagine. Boyle, who made his name in the Nineties creating paranoid, claustrophobic films such as Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, has since turned his hand to ensemble-cast razzle-dazzle, with Slumdog Millionaire and the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. He’s also from Radcliffe, Greater Manchester – the city often called the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and in which, 100 years later, the first electronic, stored-program computer, the “Manchester Baby”, was made. All of which makes it a fitting location for a meditation on what it is to be human in a world of machines. And while some of the Wachowski sisters’ film was lost on Boyle in 1999, he told the press conference ahead of the show’s premiere, today “it swims into focus more and more” as fears about governance of the online world and the possibilities of artificial intelligence grow.
The resulting show, Free Your Mind, was created for the opening of Manchester’s new Aviva Studios, built on the site of the old Granada television studios. And given the building cost £240m – the largest investment in a national cultural space since the Tate Modern opened more than two decades ago – the production had to be big. It also had to show off the possibilities of the performance space, which features a seated theatre and an adjacent cavernous warehouse, which can be used separately or as one arena. To direct a cast of some 50 dancers, many of them from the region, Boyle reunited with his Olympics collaborator, the choreographer Kenrick “H2O” Sandy, who also plays Morpheus.
Free Your Mind is not a straight retelling of The Matrix story – though a knowledge of the film’s plot and visual language will help the audience – but a wide-ranging riff on its themes. It begins in the theatre, with a lecture by Alan Turing, the father of computer science, who worked in Manchester after the Second World War, and sprints through the second half of the 20th century to 1999 and the world of The Matrix, in which humans live in a simulated reality. The action of the film – its gravity-defying leaps and slo-mo blows – lends itself well to dance, and Trinity, a rebel fighting the machines, in black PVC and a red wig, raises cheers for her high-kicking combat antics. Agents in instantly recognisable dark glasses prowl the theatre aisles. Neo, recently freed from the simulacrum, bounds around, often looking a little lost. The machine costumes, by the designer Gareth Pugh, are particularly brilliant: legs and arms made from flexible ducting, heads encased in black helmets that look like a cross between CCTV cameras and Handmaid’s Tale hoods.
[See also: JM Coetzee’s cold realism]
One memorable scene depicts the trial of the first machine to kill a human; another casts humans as a “cancer”, the only mammals that destroy the natural world. But the first act’s best scene evokes the pods in which humans are grown in the film: dancers encased in cocoon-like white fabric tubes twist and flex, their faces distorted like that of the stocking-clad Francis Dolarhyde in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. As the dancers’ casings twist around each other, their movements – set to one of the more melodic tracks of Michael “Mikey J” Asante’s thrumming electro score – resemble a hypnotic, unsettling maypole dance.
For the second half, the audience is directed by volunteers wearing white rabbit heads into the warehouse, which has been bedecked in white by the visual artist Es Devlin. A runway-like stage divides the space, with the audience standing on either side, a huge screen suspended above it, from which a dizzying array of images are projected. Here the production enters the real, modern world to consider our dependence on technology, before returning the language of the film for the final showdown between human and machine. A dancer half-enclosed in a pile of delivery boxes hands out brown packages bearing text resembling Amazon logos. Another wears foam fingers, blue thumbs up like the Facebook “like” button; two women in morph suits the colours of the Google logo writhe. Other dancers hold phones in front of their faces, as though they are being led by their screens.
Shifting away from the fates of its central characters, the production loses focus in its second half. If Boyle has anything significant to say about our enslavement to the tech bros, it is unclear. Free Your Mind is certainly a spectacle, a high-intensity assault on the senses, and a showcase of visceral dance. But given the potent themes of The Matrix – what distinguishes humans from the intelligent technology we create, what life we choose for ourselves and how free we are to do so – in the end I found it cold, unmoving and not quite human enough.
Free Your Mind is at Aviva Studios, Manchester, until 5 November.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War