ATMOSPHERE AND MORALITY: POST-PUNK MANCHESTER COMES TO TOWN

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Liverpool and Manchester are so similar – any intelligent life form from either city will admit that to you. But we do have our inherent contradictions culturally, in particular. There is one thing both places agree on, though: Joy Division. Here, we go on a post-punk fever dream with the writer of a play all about the people and places of the era. By Alan O’Hare.

“It could be Liverpool and The Beatles or Sheffield and The Human League. The play is about history moving in waves, with time and places overlapping.” Brian Gorman, writer of ‘New Dawn Fades – A Play About Joy Division and Manchester’, is telling us about the production, described by the MEN as “capturing the spirit of the times”.

The times we’re talking about connect Liverpool and Manchester in many ways. We might be auld enemies when it comes to football, music and waterways… but the tales of these two northern cities will always be intertwined. Culturally, Liverpool and Manchester have fought for occupation for a long time and higher ground has never been claimed. Focusing on the post-punk era, places and names like Eric’s and Tony Wilson dominate the tale – but there is one band that both sides agree on: Joy Division. Their popularity continues to grow; TopMan stock the t-shirts on the high street, Peter Hook tours full album sets of his first band’s records and New Order still play the best of Joy Division.

Why? It’s a magical mystery, especially considering the seminal Manchester band released just two albums during their existence. But there’s a lot more to it than ‘just’ the music. And, as the play is set to come to Liverpool for performances in Hanover Street’s Epstein Theatre from next week, we thought we’d dig a little deeper with its writer and producer, Brian Gorman.

What do we all find so endlessly fascinating about Joy Division and the post-punk era?
There was an explosion of creative energy, fuelled by the bleakness of seventies Britain, and it provided disadvantaged youth and older people with a ‘way out’. But that fascination was a major concern for me when I started writing what would become ‘New Dawn Fades’ – it was originally a graphic novel about the history of Manchester and Salford. But, when a friend asked me to work on a similar project based on Manchester bands, I thought I’d combine the two.

Was there also a catalyst that came from listening to the band?
Yes, Ian Curtis’ enigmatic lyrics seemed to explore time, space and similar themes of identity and sense of place to my own work. A little research gave me some wonderful events to link with his lyrics in the play, like Elizabeth I’s adviser and practitioner of ‘magick’, Dr John Dee, actually living in Manchester in the 17th century. I believe there is something truly magical about particular places around the area. Ian Curtis seemed to have similar ideas.

We’ve talked about the fascination for the period: books, films etc. What will your play add to the tale?
The film ‘Control’ has already concerned itself with Ian Curtis’ story – I’ve taken a broader approach to combine the intimate with the epic, rather than focus on the domestic tragedy of Ian and Deborah. I want audiences to feel that Manchester is the main character. The play is about how a particular time, place and convergence of events can shape a person.

It could be a few towns or cities, though. Right?
Exactly. It could be any city, anywhere… the atmosphere of a place, and the events that have taken place there, have a subconscious – and perhaps supernatural – effect on people. We have scenes with Ian Curtis meeting Dr John Dee, maybe he’s hallucinating or time travelling, based on the fact that Kevin Cummins’ famous photo of the band in the alleyway was an actual medieval bridge that linked the city to the cathedral – both Curtis and Dee would have surely occupied the same space, but at different periods in time.

We’re talking about atmosphere, then…
Science tells us that we carry the genes of every ancestor, which suggest that there is such a thing as a ‘race memory’: an inherited subconscious memory of events. Ian Curtis seemed to explore this in his lyrics. If he had been born in London, for example, his songs would have had a very different sound or he may never have even considered a career in music.

Thank God for Manchester, then, hey?
Yeah’… I believe places do affect us. But this isn’t a Manchester-centric play – it’s a story of individuals coming together to create something larger than the sum of the parts.

Anthony H Wilson played a big part, too.
As Tony was a well-known face on Granada Reports, I thought it would be best to have him serve as the narrator of the play and for him to meet different characters at various points in their history. The actor playing Tony, Lee Joseph, is incredible and we have him open the show in a very theatrical way… as well as the real life interactions with Joy Division and the iconic moments from Granada. He really does send a shiver down your spine at times – so much so that Rowetta, from Happy Mondays, was in tears at his portrayal when she saw the opening night.

You’ve set the scene well. Any last words?
Joy Division were four young men who got together by sheer accident. Yet they formed one of the most iconic and influential bands of all time – add the charismatic and eccentric Tony Wilson into the mix and you capture the magic formula!

‘New Dawn Fades – A Play About Joy Division And Manchester’
Thursday 7th April – Saturday 9th April 2016, Epstein Theatre, Hanover Street
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‘Michael Whittaker as Ian Curtis’
– pic courtesy of ‘New Dawn Fades’

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