With the pervasive smell of brick dust hanging in the air and the stage curtained off with projections mapping Kublai Khan’s kingdom, we embark on a tale of empire.
Invisible Cities is a mesh of contemporary dance, projections, spectacular staging and a thumping score set within the imposing Mayfield building. This Manchester International Festival world premiere is a mesmerising production, an intercontinental adventure for the Game of Thrones generation.
The narrative, which is loosely based on the infamous Italo Calvino novel from 1972 Invisible Cities, is formed around Kublai Khan’s on-going conversation with explorer Marco Polo as they travel to idealised cities searching for nirvana.
The elderly and short-tempered emperor is taken to a range of cities by the explorer as he conjures up imagined infrastructures and personality. These metropolises become characters themselves and include Zenobia, a city of joy; Beerdhebs, a celestial city of gold and Isadora, a city of promise, seduction and desire.
Directed by Leo Warner, the founder and executive creative director of 59 Productions, this is a large-scale production and one that immediately draws you into the statesman-like discussions taking place within court, on water and among bustling streets.
Danny Saopani (playing Kublia Khan), recently seen in Black Panther, has the required baritone and gravitas to carry off playing the Mongol ruler, although I found Matthew Leonhart’s Americanised version of Marco Polo a little distracting, especially when they were riding on a gondola through Venice.
Throughout these international adventures, Khan’s loyal guards dance around them, offering breath-taking choreography from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (also the co-director) and performed by Rambert – from the cat’s cradle of ropes trapping Khan in a human web to the haunch-like elephant creatures and the incredible stilt walking theatrics. This is a feast for the eyes and ears, and the vastness of Mayfield, a former train depot, befits the grand theme of global travel.
Divided into sections entitled questions, health, language, desire and longing we follow Khan as he comes to the realisation that “all cities mirror each other”. Warner says that the performance “offers a tantalising glimpse of an intelligible truth that the emperor needs to grasp in order to fulfil his desire to understand and therefore possess his empire”.
It’s clear that directing and producing this show was a herculean task because of the interdisciplinary nature of the arts on stage. This site-specific spectacle will undoubtedly be one of MIF’s highlights as it’s such an arresting and ambitious mix of theatre, choreography, music, architectural design and projection mapping. The performance forces you to consider how place and people interact, and how and why we make certain cities our home.
Invisibles Cities runs until July 14, 2019