6 - 20 October 2017

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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: I Have a Dream at Manchester Town Hall

Lamn Sissay onstage at Manchester Town HallChris Bull

  • Lamn Sissay onstage at Manchester Town Hall

Billed as a special programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s seminal I Have a Dream speech, this event was always likely to be tinged with the political, racial, and societal tensions of the present day. So it was somewhat surprising when Lemn Sissay's opening poem focused on his feelings of belonging. 'I belong' was the repeated refrain, as Sissay conjured up imagery of Manchester and the rest of the North West, talking about walking alongside Morrissey and The Stone Roses, and, in the most powerful moment of the poem, expressing his surprise at how he, ‘the blackest of black men’, had ‘moved in next door to John Cooper Clarke’. It was a startling opening, which, if anything, suggested that at least some of the things that MLK dared to dream have come true.

Set in a stunning room at Manchester Town Hall, each poem Sissay performed was bookended by Manchester Camerata's rendition of Beethoven's String Quartet op. 130. This particular piece, written as Beethoven approached the end of his life, was chosen for its themes of joy, fear, regret, and, ultimately, hope. All of these emotions should be part of any tribute to Martin Luther King, and the flawless performance by Manchester Camerata was fitting and emotive.

But the night really burst into life when Sissay returned to the stage. Having begun by discussing belonging, his second performance rallied against the presence of borders. “Borders are bullies,” he exclaimed, before reeling off a list of issues he has with the current immigration system. If it was up to Sissay, we would “tear up passports and birth certificates”, making borders and separation a thing of the past. This was as close as the poet got to actually channelling MLK and presenting us with his own dream, his own vision of the future, his voice echoing around the room in a way the great man himself would've been proud of.

Despite the serious nature of this event, Sissay's comic timing and impressive stage presence were perhaps the highlights of the evening. When the Town Hall's bells rang a few lines into one of his poems, he waited, feigned exasperation on his face, tapping the tune of the bells with his finger. He then steamrolled his way through what he'd already read of the poem, before exploding into life as it drew to a conclusion. When he came out for his final reading, he stopped when he noticed the reaction of an audience member. The first line was “they always said I was close to the edge.” An audience member nodded in agreement, and Sissay couldn't help but point it out. He then went on a mini rant which had the crowd in stitches, and only served to prove that the nodding spectator had been correct. It was a warm and powerful performance throughout. Add in the unique musical element, and this might possibly have been the highlight of the whole festival.

About the writer: Fran Slater is a Manchester-based writer and editor who is currently taking far too long to finish his first novel. He blogs at franslater.wordpress.com.