The latest product of German avant-garde impresario, composer and director Heiner Goebbels premiered at the recent Manchester International Festival preview.

Everything that Happened and Would Happen was held in the cavernous, derelict Mayfield Station, the performance telling a history of sorts, an esoteric, chaotic history of Europe. This absurdist compression of the 19th and 20th centuries goes on for just under three hours, and, just like the period it describes, there is no interval.

The black-jumpsuited dancers tumble about the stage, under a greyscale kaleidoscope of lighting effects, as Goebbels’s music is played on an unusual, sliding synthesizer. As this goes on, in a style that lies somewhere between automated text-to-speech and a seance, an anecdotal history is read. The dancers are not acting along with the subject matter; rather, at many points they seem to be conflicting with it, whirling around like artful stagehands, accompanied by electric guitar, saxophone and a huge, cinematic drum kit as the keyboardist and storyteller synthesize a whole world of deafness and pain.

At the outset, the enormous warehouse of a stage is littered with suns, moons, ribbons, and the movement of dancers-cum-stage-hands, but an insular set of pillars is soon all that is left, as the performers “show their working” by carrying the scenery away with them. The scenes combine reading, convulsing characters, building and re-building, and musical improvisation, all of which is regularly punctuated by new arrivals, by boulders rolling down what used to be Mayfield’s train platform, or by screens of fabric being lowered into the foreground, host to vivid, almost-live projections of riots, fire and western excess.

For one prolonged spell, the performers hold huge plaster plinths, empty, suggesting a lack of art to put on display, or a lack of historical figures who deserve our honour, especially relevant in the wake of recent events, but also indicative of a trend in public art in these islands which attends more to the question of the plinth than to the art hoisted upon it. ”Who deserves a pedestal but time?”, the play asks, as the only thing atop the empty monument is the narrator, handing down stories like Promethean fire.  Spells of stiff monotony between these excitements seem intended to remind us that history was often something less experienced than endured.

Sometimes in the performance, the text seems to be from the perspective of a protagonist who experienced the events being recounted, at others the text projects an impartial historical retrospective, but always the story is tainted with distaste. It is a story of prejudice and violence, and of racism and jingoism, and it is hard not to feel like everything that happened, could happen.

At the end of the show, the audience were led onto the roof of the depot, above a city shrouded in cold light, only to descend from that elevated mind-set into the noise and confusion of the city, and the space behind those walls once again becomes a secret.

Ronan Long

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