Before you’ve even stepped properly inside Everything that happened and would happen there’s a palpable sense of awe, not to say slight intimidation, at the setting.

Locals have probably seen the old Mayfield Depot, next to Manchester Piccadilly Station, but thought of it, if at all, as a vast, mouldering building whose usefulness (as a railway and luggage depot) ran out years ago. And let’s face it, the environs of Fairfield Street are not where you’re likely to just hang around. But it’s only once you get inside the building that its extraordinary scale becomes apparent. Huge pillars, enormous spaces, dark passages heading who knows where…and that’s just the tickets and bar area.

So it’s a fitting setting for the world premiere of a show by German composer and artist Heiner Goebbels which integrates live music, performance and large-scale multimedia installations to span 120 years of European history within a vast shifting landscape animated by 17 performers and live musicians. It’s presented here by Manchester International Festival (MIF) as a pre-Factory event and is a typically ambitious co-production with Artangel, 14-18 NOW, Park Avenue Armory and Ruhrtriennale.

MIF’s artistic director John McGrath agrees that “as a meditation on European history, presenting it within the wonderfully atmospheric space of the Mayfield, historically a site of passage and connection, seems highly apt”.

The startling and provocative show, as Goebbels points out, “doesn’t attempt to participate in all the opinions as to the meaning of what has happened” since the start of the First World War, going on to explain that ”Everything that happened and would happen seeks to open up a space of images, words and sounds generous enough to avoid the impression that somebody on stage is trying to tell you what to think. It is a space for imagination and reflection, in which the construction of sense is left for everyone to assemble.”

Unsurprisingly then, it’s not flawless and there were a few sections last night that I felt I could live without in a show running for two hours and 40 minutes (not counting a closing visit to the roof of the building which was pretty thrilling in itself). But others might well disagree, and that’s the point, or at least part of it. 

The work is inspired by Patrik Ouředník’s 2001 book Europeana (no, me neither) along with scenic elements from Goebbels’ 2012 staging of John Cage’s Europeras, and a different daily feed from TV channel Euronews’ No Comment. Raw camera footage of the news, without commentary or mediation – “still my favourite TV format for over 20 years,” chuckles Goebbels – is projected onto an endlessly shifting series of huge cut-out backdrops hoisted onto flying bars in a series of improbably well choreographed movements. Elsewhere in this epic show, dazzling lighting effects, rolling rocks, pillars and even laundry trolleys complement the performers’ exhausting antics, with a live soundtrack of industrial noises provided by musicians integrated into the action, in a remarkably balanced relationship between sounds and movements, bodies and objects.

By Kevin Bourke

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Everything that happened and would happen is on until October 21, 2018. Times vary, please check;

To read Northern Soul’s interview with the artistic director of Manchester International Festival, click here.