Manchester International Festival
Loosely based on the novel by Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities explores the life and travels of Marco Polo and his relationship with the recently widowed emperor Kublai Khan. Marco Polo is held hostage. At stake is the life of his father who will only be freed when Marco Polo returns from various adventures to cities afar where he is tasked with describing these cities on his return. Kublai Khan wants to know what they are like, how do they compare with his own empire. There’s little in the way of narrative, as indeed there is with the book. Instead it’s about ideas, the meaning of cities, and communities.
Yes, agrees Marco Polo, cities are indeed about concrete. But they are also about much more. He has visited cities of gold, cities of canals, cities of marble, cities in the desert, cities underground and cities of bamboo. In turn he describes each to the Emperor. And what of today’s cities? Clearly a question that Marco Polo cannot answer but Calvino argues that the modern city whilst it may have its splendid architecture has also become a waste disposal outlet, clogged up with the detritus of every day existence and a population that has outgrown its own boundaries. The next city is the next airport, another place to be ticked off on a bucket list of anticipated venues.
But even if the narrative is not always clear, the staging is spectacular, interweaving dance, music, lighting, audio and film in an extraordinary live performance set amidst the old industrial arches and iron pillars of what was once the freight depot for Manchester’s Piccadilly station. Performed by Rambert and 59 Productions, it’s a brilliant concept that at times takes the breath away. The audience are seated separately in four spaces – north, south, east and west – with even a canal flowing through the set.
Manchester’s International Festival is renowned for its innovative productions. They don’t always work but here’s one that certainly does and is already scheduled for a world tour though one wonders if it will ever be performed in a more stunning venue.