Invisible Cities, Manchester International Festival, July 2019

I’ll be honest: I only went to this event to get inside Mayfield Station, the disused goods depot just across Fairfield Street from Piccadilly Station. The site has been valued by the Urbex community for years – considered ideal for novice urban explorers – but I’m such a coward, I’d much rather pay to go in legally!

This whole area has been under threat for some time due to the Government’s plans for the High Speed 2 Rail Project, but as HS2’s future becomes ever more doubtful, the future for Mayfield and its environs is looking up.

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Mayfield has been in occasional use as a venue by the biannual Manchester International Festival since 2013, and has recently hosted events organised by The Warehouse Project and Manchester Pride.

During July this year it provided a stunning setting for Rambert and 59 Productions’ world premiere of ‘Invisible Cities’, based upon Italo Calvino’s novel ‘Le città invisibili.’

“What’s this thing about?” My daughter asked, and I struggled to explain… “It’s a play which contains modern dance, that’s based on an Italian novel, which is based on Marco Polo’s journeys, which I think were historical, at least I think he was a real person… but I’m not sure if the stories were true… But the important thing is we get inside the station.”

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When we arrived at the entrance to Mayfield on Baring Street, we were ushered through a baggage check, past portaloos and a bar, and finally round into the walled section of the building which was screened off, and quite dark.

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We walked round the outside of the seating which was stepped up on scaffolding in four sections, North, South, East, and West.

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We climbed stairs to our seats, which were on the very back row, and found ourselves in a space not unlike a small cinema: curtains obscured our view of the stage and we could only see our section of the audience (- our quarter).

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As music started, films of computer generated landscapes were projected onto the curtains… first we saw waves, as if we were flying low over them; then we saw rocks and a desert…

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…and then the curtains parted to reveal the huge central stage area, which had large projection screens either side.

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The staging was amazing and made full use of the unique space… unfortunately I was told off for taking photos early on during the performance and so was unable to capture very much. During the course of the play, the central structure was dismantled and rearranged in various ingenious ways: at one point two staircases formed a Venetian style bridge over a real canal, upon which a small barge slowly travelled. The canal can be seen on this shot taken after the performance finished:

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Here the centre of the canal had been filled with platforms (which were lowered from the ceiling), but for the boat scene, the canal ran right across the stage: the water was only a few inches deep.

While Invisible Cities was visually superb, it was dramatically weak, overlong and tedious to sit through. There is one human relationship at the heart of this drama… between Marco Polo, the 13th Century Venetian merchant, and Kublai Khan, all-powerful Emperor of Mongolia and China… and there wasn’t enough going on with this relationship to keep me interested. Khan controls the youthful Marco Polo by threatening to harm his father and uncle; Marco Polo has no choice but to entertain the emperor with descriptions of cities, which Khan (grandson of Ghengis) rules over but will never see with his own eyes. Khan is a despotic narcissist and Marco Polo performs flights of fantasy on demand… both men are alone within their bubbles. There is a suggestion that Khan might be in love with Polo but, then again, he might not, and anyway who cares – the guy is a lunatic. The premise seemed similar to “The Arabian Nights” only without the stories.

It’s hard to understand how such a tremendous collaborative creative effort came to be exerted around this flimsy piece of dramatic writing; however it was, and the results were visually very impressive, but not emotionally engaging.

Of course the dancing was virtuoso, as one would expect from Rambert, but the dancers seemed a bit dwarfed by the scale of the venue, and they were performing supporting roles only. Rambert pulled off some impressive stunts (stilt-walking, acrobatics, camel-impersonation) but their function was to illustrate Marco’s city descriptions with physical mime.

Projected computer graphics were also used very effectively to illustrate, and the sound was well designed and executed, but wouldn’t stand up on its own, I don’t think. And this set me wondering… if this piece was an opera, wouldn’t it work much better? The slow pace, the monologues, the tableaux-like imagery would all be more enjoyable if we were emotionally engaged by the score… if the score were the core! And we’d be spared all the frenzied shouting.

I was lucky enough to see a performance of ‘Akhenaten’ by Philip Glass at English National Opera in the late 1980s. Though the theatre space was very different, there were elements of the staging and the elegaic tone of the performance (also about a supreme ruler of antiquity) which were reminiscent… but music was the heart and soul of ‘Akhenaten’ and the resulting performance was so much more engaging.

Like ‘The Nico Project’, ‘Invisible Cities’ was serious and took itself very seriously. Without humour, and without emotional engagement, ‘Invisible Cities’ managed to be incredibly impressive and yet boring at the same time.

Luckily, though, Mayfield didn’t disappoint:

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