At the last Manchester International Festival in 2011, I witnessed Damon Albarn step way out of his comfort zone and into Modern English Opera folklore. Refusing to take an easy route to success, Albarn entranced me with a poetic, moving tale of an English legend, through a medium I never dreamt I would witness live.
As the time arrives for this year’s festivities, it’s the turn of creative mastermind Adam Curtis, in collaboration with iconic tripsters Massive Attack, to bewitch us all once more.
Taking place in the disused, colossal Mayfield Railway Depot in the heart of Manchester, this is the tale of…well I’m not entirely sure I want to say. Revealing too much to those still to see it would take away some of the experience’s impact and do a disservice to its creators, but what I will reveal is that the show covers a lot during its 100-odd minute runtime. The film, first and foremost, takes us through the lives of a variety of powerful people and events from the latter half of the 20th Century. It also explores the influence of the media and big business, the impact of technology’s growth, and then picks out some lesser-known characters whose lives and ideals touched the lot.
A combination of stark imagery, historical footage that veers from disturbing to quaint along with bold written comment, the film is supported by a stunning score from Massive Attack who fade in and out like narrative ghosts. Performing classic songs as well as creating some absorbing soundscapes, Robert Del Naja et al are ably assisted by The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and reggae singer Horace Andy who are both spell-bindingly brilliant.
Being the first night there are, understandably, some technical issues. Some people struggle to see all the lower-down subtitles, whilst the projectors for the band’s screen misalign briefly towards the end. The pounding soundtrack does also drown out the spoken narrative on occasion, but largely, the impact of the cavernous venue and the whole set up is impressive and immersive.
It’s also a pretty hot and intense experience, especially with the bar closing once everyone is pig-penned into the main auditorium, and the sheer size of the screens, lights and sound certainly aren’t for those of a nervous disposition.
But is the experience thought-provoking? Yes. Does it take place in an excellent, atmospheric setting? Certainly. Does it feature killer tunes? I can still feel them reverberating through me now. Is the political commentary somewhat forced? Most definitely. But despite this and Curtis’ narrative meandering waywardly on occasion, it can’t be denied that this is an enthralling, hypnotic shared experience of quite some grandeur and ambition.