Caught by the River

Stories of the towns, stories of the streets

20th July 2017

Robin Turner assesses Fatherland and Street Poem, the Karl Hyde works showcased at Manchester International Festival earlier this month

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Karl Hyde perform on stage. I first saw him front Underworld in 1993 at a half-full Venus in Nottingham, my first assignment as their newly-employed press officer. I last saw the band at a sold out Alexandra Palace in March – their biggest ever UK headline show, and probably their best too. There’ve been stops in Europe, America and Japan in between. Karl is magnetic and dynamic; a truly inimitable frontman. Odd then, to see him on stage last week played by someone else.

At Manchester’s Royal Exchange, I watched ‘Karl’ as a character in a play he’d co-written. Played with uncanny mannerisms by an actor called Bryan Dick, Karl was one of the leads in Fatherland – conceived and executed for the Manchester International Festival with playwright Simon Stevens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Punk Rock) and Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham.

Much has been written about Fatherland by writers far more erudite than me, so I’ll try to skate around the edges rather than going for deep comparisons to other pieces of verbatim theatre I’ve never seen. I’m not a regular theatre-goer, so have little to compare to – watching me watch a play, I imagine, would be like watching a dog being shown a card trick. That said, for me, Fatherland did something that transcended its medium, creating a fascinating snapshot of Britain in decline. Pieced together via a set of interwoven stories recorded by the three writers in their respective hometowns (Corby, Kidderminster and Stockport), the play gives a platform to a section of society that’s more used to keeping itself to itself. These are the voices of working men, asked to deal with dormant feelings.

While Fatherland’s ‘Karl’ takes on the tech role for the play’s trio of interviewers – clipping a Sennhauser mic and testing the levels of the men who’ve agreed to talk about their relationships with their fathers (and, if relevant, their own kids) – the real Karl’s presence is felt continually through the play’s score. Throughout, a cast of untrained singers perform to music, written with the peerless Matthew Herbert, that loops and mutates and evokes three different ‘folk’ forms – the sea shanty, the chain gang chant and the school playground rhyme. Some of the play’s more disconcerting passages are set to music – such as a fireman’s ultra-graphic tale of recovering a long dead body on Christmas Eve. In each case, the minimalist backdrop ramps up the intensity of the script.

What could have ended up seeming voyeuristic or hubristic brilliantly turns a mirror on itself. What is reflected is the the glaring schism between the capital and cities such as Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow and Bristol, and the towns and satellites in the shadows of them. It’s the same schism we get to see occasionally on TV, warped and furious and emerging whenever Dimbleby points to a central casting ‘angry, red-faced white bloke’ on Question Time and allows him to ‘have his say’ about Brexit, muslims, or whatever else is forcing his blood pressure dangerously through the roof that day. In the play, you’re given the chance to understand and examine differences; to approach them from multiple angles, rather than just face on and fuming. As a father and a son, its real resonance only began after the house lights went up.

Ten minutes up the road, in a disused shop in Oldham Street, the real Karl could be found working on a very different stage. Here, he was a painter; a conduit for the stories of another rarely heard section of society – the homeless. Manchester Street Poem was a week-long art installation for the MiF in an empty shoe store. The walls, covered in unfolded cardboard boxes, were crammed with words upon words. Lives laid bare. Downfalls spelt out in white paint by Karl’s hand. Karl, ever-present, was relaxed and happy to talk through the project with visitors, alongside a group of mainly ex-homeless volunteers.

Walking around the room, you’re hit with the realisation that the homeless problem isn’t going away. There’s no common thread between the downward spirals, just a common conclusion. A passage about a descent into drug use is startlingly prosaic; an attempted suicide is retold matter-of-factly; the way one man decides to follow a failed custody battle is extreme yet weirdly understandable – reacting against a failed system in absolute self-inflicted penance. Although each story hits desperation point, these are the lucky ones – ones who local charities like the Booth Centre, Mustard Tree and Back on Track have helped back onto their feet.

All around the room, the stories on the walls were offset by a new score by Rick Smith, Karl’s partner in Underworld. Rick’s two hours of new music, ranging from gentle electronic murmurations to full-pelt techno, grew in volume the deeper into the exhibition you went. Rather than being additional background noise, the score added an intoxicating element of aural disorientation to the exhibition’s stark visual trippiness.

Like Fatherland, Street Poem really starts its work after you’ve walked out, when you’re on the train home or lying awake in bed trying to get back to sleep. It’s a testament to Karl’s work (and that of his co-conspirators) that neither project feels sentimental. They are far more like calls to action than moments of contemplation. I’m intrigued to see how they’ll impact on Karl’s other job – the one I’ve helped out with for the last twenty three years.


Karl Hyde recently spoke about Manchester Street Poem on BBC6 Music. Listen here. You can visit the project’s legacy site here.

Karl Hyde joins us at next week’s Port Eliot Festival, where he’ll discuss Fatherland, Manchester Street Poem and his recently published book I Am Dogboy. See all the times for our stage here.