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Manchester International Festival: Shelley, Macbeth and Massive Attack


Biennial festival's premieres include Maxine Peake reciting The Masque of Anarchy and Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare role

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A string of world premieres will be among the highlights of this summer's Manchester international festival. Events will include: a ballet featuring 11 tonnes of bone dust instead of dancers; a concert inspired by the poems of Michelangelo; and a performance of Percy Bysshe Shelley's savagely political 1819 poem The Masque of Anarchy – within a stone's throw of the site of the Peterloo massacre which inspired it.

Many of the events have already sold out. Tickets for Kenneth Branagh's return to Shakespeare and to Manchester after more than 10 years, playing Macbeth in a deconsecrated church, went in four minutes and almost crashed the festival's website.

The festival's last night, 20 July, will be relayed live on a big screen to 5,000 people in a nearby car park – but those tickets are also expected to sell out instantly. All the concerts by the group the xx have also sold out – unsurprisingly since they are performing not in an arena, but in a specially built 60-seat room.

Slightly to his surprise, festival director Alex Poots has found that this fourth biennial festival – of which the Guardian is a media partner – will be a darker affair, with many of the artists concerned with a world that looks bleaker to them in terms of politics, power, freedom and money – or the lack of it.

The stage and screen actor Maxine Peake, star of Silk, and Shameless, will perform Shelley's great 91 verse epic – without a book, she confirmed nervously – a shout of rage against the authorities who in 1819 sent a cavalry charge into a crowd of 60,000 unarmed men, women and children demonstrating for electoral law reform, killing 15 and injuring hundreds more, and incident she called "a bedrock of Manchester's history of radical politics". The event also led to the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, which in turn became the Guardian.

The performance on 6 July will be preceded by a debate hosted by the economist and BBC presenter Evan Davis, entitled Are we Powerless?.

Peake, who recently returned to live in Salford, challenged her peers to do more to support the regional arts. "They won't like me for saying this, but if instead of sitting in London and signing petitions against arts cuts, they actually got back out into the provinces and made performances, made exhibitions, we could bring about a real change."

The festival has a track record of seeking out unconventional new spaces, which Poots admitted has led to him stalking the streets shaking doorknobs and peering through hoardings – which is how he found a huge half-derelict former train station, the Mayfield Depot, abandoned since 1986, which will come back to life as a vast festival venue.

The depot will house a spectacular performance, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, which will incorporate a concert – the band's first since 2010, and their only UK show this year – in an event being created by Robert del Naja of the band, the film-maker Adam Curtis, designer Es Devlin, and Felix Barrett of theatre company Punchdrunk.

The depot will also house one of the more startling events, a centenary performance of Igor Stravinsky's chilling score for The Rite of Spring, with a 100-piece orchestra flown in from Russia. The original ballet, choreographed by Nijinsky, sparked riots. This reimagining by the theatre director Romeo Castellucci will replace the dancers with 11 tonnes of bone dust eddying and billowing in a giant glass box.

Another legendary director, Robert Wilson, will be working with the actor Willem Dafoe, and the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is better known to some as a silver-haired character of Aleksandr Petrovsky in Sex and The City. They will be working on The Old Woman, based on a 1930s absurdist novella by a Russian writer, Danill Kharms, who would die a few years later in a prison camp, aged just 36.

It will be more of a home coming for Josie Rourke, who will be bringing her new Donmar Warehouse company in a play based on the epic match between the chess master Garry Kasparov and the computer Deep Blue. Although she comes from Salford, the last time she worked in Manchester was as an office temp trying to pay off her student loan. "My granny never saw anything I did in theatre," she said sadly, "I wish she was still alive."

• Manchester International Festival, 4-21 July 2013

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