A sense of occasion and anticipation hangs over Skepta’s team up with the Manchester International Festival. Working with playwright Dawn King, creative studio TEM and immersive performance director Matthew Dunster, his Dystopia987 performances – which ran from Wednesday 17 to Friday 19 July – were, with grandiose flourish, billed as “a waking dream that presents Skepta’s singular vision of the future: deep, dark, radical and riveting”. What this translates as in reality is basically the rave equivalent of Secret Cinema.
Ticket holders congregated at a specified rendezvous point, before being shepherded by neon and mask-clad hosts to a secret industrial warehouse location ten minutes away. Phones are locked away in pouches, and punters are guided inside and scanned by “intelligent rave software” – a kind of omnipotent acid house Big Brother (for added value, some actor plants are refused entry) – and given headphones providing live-in-the-moment instructions such as “look at a stranger – make eye contact. Smile if you can”. Inside, a Blade Runner-style marketplace with protest placards adorning the walls with slogans like “Free from phones!”, “Free your ego!”, where tokens can be exchanged for Cyberdog-like fluro make-overs or hugs. A general clubbing room features a DJ and roving laser effects.
As far as a storyline goes…that’s it. Skepta’s vision of future clubbing is essentially a ‘90s rave. Whether the concept works is debatable. You might argue getting rid of phones lends itself towards a nostalgic utopia of acid house’s togetherness rather than the individualism encouraged by Instagram, but presenting clubbing as a 7.30pm-11pm immersive theatre experience means it feels like an ersatz Disneyfield version and is surely counterproductive to the message it’s trying to encourage (a sense of abandon, of community, of being bound together by the moment). It just feels weirdly gentrified and missing-the-point – like somebody putting a few Boden lamps in a Berghain darkroom. The gurning elephant in the room is that it was the combination of a new drug and new music that acted as the original acid house’s great social leveller: to achieve the same you’d have to be able to remunerate those tokens at a local dealer.
As the venue fills up, a voice commands: “We’re ready to ascend to the next level! We’re going to make something together!”, and two entrances to another room open up, hosting a towering 360-degree stage resembling an electricity pylon, which Skepta roams fully around. It’s a visually arresting structure which has various eye-catching light effects projected onto it. “Leave your bad energy outside!,” he booms. “In here we’re safe. In here there’s love. This is Dystopia987!”. Opening with a frenetic ‘Going Through It’ – taken from recently-released fifth album ‘Ignorance Is Bliss’ – his talent is the only thing that hasn’t felt artificial all night. Halfway through ‘Praise The Lord (Da Shine)’, his incendiary 2018 team-up with A$AP Rocky, he pays tribute to the incarcerated rapper by getting the crowd to chant: “FREE A$AP ROCKY!”. Dressed in a black hooded number with neon patches –a kind of athleisure biohazard suit – he sledgehammers home the egalitarian theme of the evening: “Tonight you’re not your Instagram name, you’re not your Twitter name – but yourselves!”
The staging is impressive and the actual music sounds typically fluid and fantastic: from the ping-ponging video game synths of ‘Crime Riddim’ to ‘It Ain’t Safe’s rewired gansta-rap to the ominous beats (dropped, as ever, by DJ Maximum) of ‘Pure Water’ and ‘Hypocrisy’. When Skepta drops ‘That’s Not Me’ – his 2014 single where he ditched his Gucci and helped usher in grime 2.0 – the reception is predictably bouncy. “Everybody’s going through some shit in life – we’re going to put that to one side and enjoy the music,” he says, introducing closer ‘Shutdown’, before sounding like the leader of a team-building weekend: “Look at the person to your left. Shake their hand. Now look at the person to your right. I want you to shout ‘Fucking sick! Nice to meet you!’.”
The only lingering problem is that the concept feels flawed and like it has nothing particularly original to say: shouldn’t the best artists be engaging with our complex hall-of-mirrors relationship with technology rather than going down an easy ‘Up the Luddites’ path? It doesn’t feel more communal than a usual gig – it just feels like Skepta playing the Warehouse Project with bolted-on sci-fi frippery. There’s the rub: ‘Dystopia987’ looks extraordinary but feels slightly hollow – which ironically would surely make it perfect for Instagram.