First off I have to apologise, because I am really behind with posts at the moment. Manchester After Hours – a fantastic night where museums, galleries, bars and libraries stay open late for one-off special events – was actually on 12th May. I wasn’t planning to blog about it (I didn’t last year), but the event I went to was so fantastic I just had to write a little something.
Of the vast, impressive programme of events on offer at Manchester After Hours this year, I went for Neon Sonnets – a celebration of Shakespeare combining music, drama and promenade – at the John Rylands Library. So did a lot of other people. Even though there were three performances, the queues were huge and I was very lucky to get in.
Once the audience had crowded through the old entrance, we were greeted by a brass fanfare, which echoed impressively through the historic entrance hall. After a daydream-inducing cello solo, we were escorted into the Rylands Gallery. Here, locked in a tall glass case, is one of Shakespeare’s First Folios – two of the library staff did a brief, informative talk about its importance that ended with them throwing pieces of paper scribbled with quotes at the audience. It was a good injection of fun to prevent the evening being too serious – and of course it was incredible to get a closer look at the Folio in all its glory.
Heading out to the gorgeous Historic Staircase, we were greeted by the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Romeo (Jake Robson) darted amongst the audience on the stairs, while his Juliet (Juliet Montgomery) smiled down from a balcony on the landing above. It was an apt, intelligent use of the space and made me feel closer than ever both to Shakespeare’s text and the events of that play.
As soon as the lovers made their hurried exits, the sparkling melody of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream filled the staircase. Everyone looked around, searching for the hidden musicians, and suddenly realised that four flautists were playing in the gallery directly above our heads. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favourite pieces of music as it always fills my head with Ashton’s beautiful ballet version, so this was one of the highlights of Neon Sonnets for me.
The remainder of the evening took place in John Rylands’ famous Historic Reading Room. We walked in to mezzo-soprano Joanna Harries singing the iconic Sonnet 116 set to harp, a brand new composition by Melissa Douglas. This was followed in rapid succession by a brass piece from 1597, an Olivia-Viola exchange from Twelfth Night, some Beethoven inspired by the scene at Juliet’s tomb, sonnet readings and finally, John Tavener’s moving choral elegy Song for Athene. With the Reading Room’s church-like acoustics, and the choir above us on the gallery framed by a large stained glass window, this piece – which incorporates lines from Hamlet – was perfectly staged to move, awe and impress.
It made a stunning finale to a fantastic performance. Neon Sonnets was a fitting tribute to Shakespeare and his legacy, an excellent showcase of the beautiful library space, and an absolute credit to the RNCM students. I can’t believe it was free and I only wish more people could have seen it!