If there’s a signature thread that ties together the eclectic works that have appeared at the Manchester International Festival over the past 14 years, it’s a desire to push at creative boundaries, with the artists, designers and musicians commissioned by the festival regularly asked to step out of their comfort zones and create new styles of work.
This blurring of boundaries can be seen at this year’s MIF – which opened yesterday – in the new exhibition Poet Slash Artist at Home, where Lemn Sissay and Hans Ulrich-Obrist have curated an exhibition of works by visual artists who are also poets, but is even more evident in the film installation All of this Unreal Time, which stars Cillian Murphy.
The project brings together a collection of stellar creatives from different fields: it is written by Max Porter, perhaps best known for his novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers, directed by renowned music video director Aoife McArdle, and features music by Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner and Jon Hopkins.
The full experience has only a fleeting run at the festival, from July 1-4, though the film is also available to view on the MIF website. If you can, it’s worth viewing the full thing, which is held in Manchester Central’s cavernous hall, and allows for an immersive, absorbing experience, mixing film, music and a light show to create something close to a theatrical event.
At its centre is Murphy’s performance. We find him in the midst of poetic angst as he roams empty city streets before eventually moving out into a more rural setting, though a vast set of electrical power masts – which play a central role in the experience’s early scenes – are ever-present.
This vision of Murphy purposefully striding, somewhat weather-beaten and worn, will be familiar to fans of his work, and is reminiscent of scenes from 21 Days Later to Peaky Blinders. Murphy can certainly walk down a street with intent and this familiarity actually works in service of the plot – as there is – of the film, which sees him recite a series of apologies and regrets.
We are never exactly sure what he is sorry for, with the narrative eluding to everything from selfish behaviour in relationships to male privilege to consumerism and the destruction of the planet. His words are at times agonised – “I find myself, at the midpoint of my life, in a dark wood, and now I’m here, in the forest of my mind, and every tree is shame, every living thing is a reprimand” is the opening – but elsewhere appear to come from a sense of obligation.
This ambiguity is the power of the work – allowing the audience watching to fill the space with their own anxieties, regrets, and concerns. Perhaps it’s going to be impossible to go to see any artwork or film for a while without thinking of the pandemic but it feels ever-present here, with Murphy appearing to expound on some of the thoughts and feelings we’ve all considered in the past 18 months.
All of this Unreal Time is an example of the best of MIF, where creative minds from different fields are encouraged to come together to make a new work that is poignant and thoughtful. “It was easy to be inspired by the range and power Cillian has as an actor and the poetry of Max’s words,” says McArdle of working on the project. “Rainy, empty, lockdown streets became vivid canvases. Working with all of these artists has been one of the purest collaborative journeys I’ve been on.”
All of This Unreal Time is on at Manchester Central from 1-4 July, and on demand at the Manchester International Festival website until 18 July; mif.co.uk