I always feel obliged to stick around for post-show Q and A sessions. Perhaps, just maybe, one or other member of a creative team, will release some precious nugget into the stream of consciousness triggered by the host’s (or the audience’s) questions. My job is to sift through the silt, polish up the gems and pass them onto you, dear Reader. Mostly though, the gravel that tumbles from Q and A’s is not even semi-precious. Mostly – unless you’re a fanboy or fangirl of the artist – my advice is to give them a miss.
What we learn in this evening’s post-screening Q and A is that creative folk are generally better at making stuff than at explaining it (which is as it should be), that “All of this Unreal Time” came out of a conversation between Cillian Murphy and Max Porter (while the former was appearing in the latter’s deeply affecting treatment of bereavement, “Grief is a Thing with Feathers”), and that Max Porter himself is a warm, articulate and deeply thoughtful human being. It’s nice when writers turn out that way – makes me feel less alone.
In its own way, “All of this Unreal Time” is also about grieving, not only for what is lost but for what might be on the brink of being lost.
“I came out here to apologise.”
The words (in no-longer-shocking pink) fill the otherwise blank screen as we enter the great, largely empty space that is Central Hall. The soundtrack is already in flow, as is a light show of sorts. The music veers from ambient to techno-trance. The lights, in concert with the music, aim to unsettle not entertain. (Be aware there are brief strobe-like effects at one point).
As we approach screening time, the atmosphere intensifies; the music louder, the lights more disturbing, the bass more visceral. It all gets a bit much for me. Am I getting old? (Rhetorical)
The words melt from the screen to reveal a night scene – pylons and occasional trees. Later we will move through underpasses, along mostly deserted city streets. A single, hooded character (Murphy) appears, walking through these semi-wastelands. He walks like a man with troubles to work through, like a man with something to get off his chest.
“I came out here to apologise,” he says. But to whom? To what? For what?
For the first few minutes I wondered why I hadn’t stuck with the football (Spain versus Switzerland), but then the text, the environment, the troubled, relentless movement began to seep into me, to take over me, as fine, epic poetry can.
One of the trio of composers, Bryce Dessner, mentions “The Wasteland” and there is something of that here. Porter also nods to Dante’s “Inferno” – but there’s no need to get the references to get what’s going on.
A man (a white, First World man) apologising for his own life, but also for the life of humankind. This is simultaneously an individual lamenting the choices he made, the chances he missed, the failure to pay attention to the right things, and a man among men, despairing at the trashing of the living world by his collective kind. He utters a, “…species-deep ‘Sorry,’ that I didn’t dedicate myself, all of this unreal time, to you.”
The piece raises the issue of the connection between individual and collective failure. The text slides constantly from the particular to the universal. Murphy sits alone in a no-frills city cafe, as a butterfly (not a moth) beats its wings against the strip light, scenes of dreadful forest fires play on the small, wall-mounted TV.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell a willow from a hazel,” the man opines.
“It’s dads’ fault back and back and back…” Masculinity carries the burden of blame for humanity’s exploitation of the bio-sphere.
We have something of a “Koyaanisqatsi” for the 21st century, except where Philip Glass’s masterpiece uses music and mind-crushing images of environmental destruction, Aoife McArdle’s visually quieter film gives us words as a companion to urban deserts, words delivered with a flat, demotic, honest power by Murphy. Where Glass left us wrung out and despairing, Porter’s words allow just a sliver of hope as dawn breaks.
“I say, thank you.”
By the end, so do I.
All of This Unreal Time is available to book to watch online on a pay what you feel basis from 2-18 July. Recommended age 12+ Manchester International Festival is taking place across the city from 1-18 July 2021.