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Processing the Pandemic at the Manchester International Festival

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Gregory Maqoma’s highly varied choreography for these dancers (as well as Thulani Chauke on two large screens at the sides of the stage — a nod to travel problems during Covid-19) and Garratt’s ventriloquist skills were the best parts of the unevenly paced show, which meandered from one set piece to another.

Join Times theater reporter Michael Paulson in conversation with Lin-Manuel Miranda, catch a performance from Shakespeare in the Park and more as we explore signs of hope in a changed city. For a year, the “Offstage” series has followed theater through a shutdown. Now we’re looking at its rebound.

The strongest performance piece was, surprisingly, a film installation. In the vast Manchester Center (a former train station), flashing lights and a humming, breathy electronic surround sound (by Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Jon Hopkins) pierced the cavernous space before the start of “All of This Unreal Time,” a collaboration between the actor Cillian Murphy (“Peaky Blinders”) and the writer Max Porter, directed by Aoife McArdle.

Murphy and Porter have worked together previously, on the stage adaptation of “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers,” and as with that work, the text here is a strange and wonderful assemblage of narrative, reflection, soliloquy, myth and poetry. “I came out here to apologise” is emblazoned on the screen before we see Murphy trudging through a dark, dripping tunnel.

As he walks through the night, down dilapidated streets and past fluorescent-lit all-night cafes, Murphy’s character speaks of his shame, anger and fears as he confesses his failings as a man (“Sisterhood, now that’s a thing to envy”). “I’m sorry I took, and took, and took, and took, and took, and enriched myself without pause and left deep scars on the skin of the earth,” he says near the end, by which time he is walking through a field outside the city, the sky lightening, trains passing, birds flocking.

McArdle keeps the pace tight, the focus on Murphy, her cutaway shots fleeting and pointed. Seen on a huge screen, the sound swelling and waning like the echoes of nature itself alongside the musical rhythms of the text, “All This Unreal Time” (available to watch online) is a riveting, genuinely immersive journey that — like all good art — keeps the possibilities for meaning entirely open.


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