It isn’t every set designer who will put an actual canal onstage with a gondolier gliding serenely across it, but 59 Productions and Rambert have shown themselves to be every bit as willing to push the boundaries as Italo Calvino was when he wrote the novel Invisible Cities back in 1979.
Directed by Leo Warner and adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, this production is set in Mayfield, an abandoned railway station. The audience is placed on four towers surrounding the stage, each named after a point of the compass. There are huge curtains with vast landscapes of oceans, deserts, mountain ranges, jungles are projected onto them, making for an almost unbearable domination of sight and sound until they sweep back to show the huge stage behind.
As in the book, Invisible Cities concerns two main characters. The traveller Marco Polo (played by Matthew Leonhart) and his conversations with Kublai Khan (portrayed by veteran actor Danny Sapani) in the great empire of Yuan. Marco Polo, in an effort to appease Khan, describes 55 different cities and this is where the production really glows.
In the novel the cities are a collection of fantastical prose poems, each one more wonderful and imaginative than the last. In the play we see the cities rise and fall before our eyes; a celestial city of air with strips of gold metal used as arches, a city of desire with dancers in an intense choreography and my personal favourite – a city of the dead with the actors crawling onstage, faceless and formless, smothered in sheets over old bones. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography creates visual poetry, and injects a completely different mood for each city. After the interval the aforementioned canal appears onstage, complete with gondolier, just to drive home the inspiration for each one – Marco Polo’s hometown.
“There is still one of which you never speak.” says Kublai Khan to Polo in the novel. Polo replies, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” If the choreography and set are the production’s strengths, its weakness is the lack of subtlety in the dialogue scenes between Polo and Khan, and the stagnant lack of movement in contrast to the description of each city. Having seen both main actors excel in other productions it was disappointing to see them rather let down by the script compared to the brilliance of the rest of the play. These flaws are easy to overlook, however, when the production is full of so many wonders when it comes to dance, choreography and set design.
Invisible Cities lives up to the book it was based on, with each city as weird and wonderful as those Calvino created, full of glass or sewage or horses or bones of the dead. It is on an epic scale and sets the bar for any metaphysical or dreamlike adaptations in the future. The last city is one of rubbish that pollutes the canal and cannot be degraded away; an ugly but fitting ending after the beauty of nature that’s gone before.
Invisible Cities played at Mayfield as part of Manchester International Festival from 2-14 July. More info here.