Thursday, 6 July 2017

Review: What If Women Ruled the World?, Manchester International Festival


Premiering in the week that North Korea claimed a successful intercontinental missile test, and the columnist Owen Jones sparked a social media row by suggesting the British people should present large-scale public resistance if the President of the United States visited the UK, What If Women Ruled the World? feels scarily prescient and necessary for an art performance.

Rather than a hackneyed invitation to smash the patriarchy – although the need to replace established hierarchies is, unsurprisingly, a recurrent theme – What If Women Ruled the World? uses a creative platform to imagine a situation in which humanity is forced to start anew, and to learn the lessons of the past (and the present).

Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s commission for Manchester International Festival takes the ambiguous end point of Stanley Kubrick’s classic film Dr Strangelove as its starting point, positing a female-led world in which women outnumber men ten to one and asking what would happen next if the slate was wiped clean and we could start again – with women in charge.

To start with, the piece has an air of amateur dramatics about it – think stick-on-moustaches, exaggerated accents, women in drag and ‘survival kits’ containing lipstick and nylons alongside sustenance and weapons – but the piece convincingly navigates between fact and storytelling, entertainment and debate, information and polemic. It’s both historically grounded and contemporary, incorporating possibly the first literary reference to ‘covfefe’, to knowing audience laughter.
What If Women Ruled the World? comes into its own when the five actors in the war room are brought together with five women who are real-life international experts in their fields, ranging from economics and development to archaeology and feminism. The women discuss major and recognisable challenges facing the world outside – from climate change, the threat of nuclear war, pandemics and the depletion of natural resources to ongoing conflict and systemised violence against women. Behind them the Doomsday Clock ticks away, offering archival glimpses into natural and manmade disasters, with both personal and global impacts, as a rapidly deteriorating post-bomb landscape is alluded to, building a very real sense of urgency.

What If Women Ruled the World? is an invitation to imagine things done differently, and to ask questions of our actions and priorities as individuals, as city dwellers, and as British, European and global citizens. It starts with a lighthearted premise, exploring serious issues with personality and humour, but it’s a simplistic title for a piece that suggests not just overthrowing the patriarchy, but our entire economic, social and political systems and fundamentally rethinking the way we relate to each other and to the planet. At a time when socialist ideas such as equitable taxation and economic redistribution are apparently back in vogue, much of the discussion captures the zeitgeist, but ultimately, it serves as a warning about bigger dangers such as the power of individuals and the cult of personality. It poses not just the titular question, but asks who should be allowed a seat at the table of power, whose knowledge and expertise we take on board, and what measures we need to take to ensure those voices are heard.

What If Women Ruled the World? is at Mayfield, Manchester, until Saturday 8 July as part of Manchester International Festival. To book visit http://mif.co.uk/mif17-events/what-if-women-ruled-the-world.

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