“Invisible Cities” ought to be unstageable. Italo Calvino’s extraordinary little book is a fantastical travelogue — a guide to the most incredible metropolises you can imagine. Framed as Marco Polo’s reports to his all-powerful emperor, Kublai Khan, it conjures cities hung between hills in hammocks and subterranean cities like sewer systems; cities with earth in place of air; cities within cities within cities. Beautiful as it is, the book’s all description, no narrative drive, and it exists on a scale that should be beyond the limits of the stage. Turns out, not so much. Best buckle up.
Set in a huge disused and near derelict rail station, Invisible Cities becomes less a play, more a staged sculpture of sorts. It centers on a series of static conversations between Emperor and Adventurer: Danny Sapani’s majestic fury holds Marco Polo (Matthew Leonhart) hostage until he’s explained the extent of his empire and all it contains. Around them, a chorus of dancers bring the far-flung locations he describes to life.
With the audience divided into four, sat in separate corners around a huge cross stage, Leo Warner and Sidi Larbi Cherkoaui’s production deploys phantasmagorical projections to take us on a fanciful grand tour. Eye-popping landscapes appear on gossamer curtains and awaken the senses as only travel can do: bamboo forests and silk-strewn streets, snow-tipped mountains and sky-high waves. Exotic environments materialize out of sound and light.
Bodies too, with each city conveyed through choreography — an act that recalls Frank Zappa’s eye-rolling dismissal of dancing about architecture. It is an innately theatrical translation: bodies stand in for buildings; people make a place. They stride through mid-air in a city on stilts and swoosh star-like lights through constellations of streets. A city of corpses shudders into life when unwatched — the undead equivalent of Grandmother’s Footsteps – while streets criss-crossed with string are shown as dancers entangle each other in oversized Cats’ Cradles.
The movement’s rarely mesmerizing, but it builds on Calvino’s metropolitan meditation, and Cheroukai captures some central philosophy of cities — that they are more animal than they are architectural. Each, here, is in flux: not pinned down by Calvino’s precise prose, but alive, fluctuating, even ephemeral. They are living, breathing, moving things; organisms more than organizations. Each place has its own pulse, its own rhythm of life.
As they spring up and melt away, they seem more like distant visions on Jenny Melville’s shadowy set which slides from imperial palaces to underground vaults via a Venetian canal complete with its own gondola. More than in the book, with the descriptions dialogue, you’re always aware of the two men talking: the emperor completely cut off from his people, and the traveller trapped against his will. Which of them, really, has the richer existence? Who holds the power?
It doesn’t sit seamlessly on the stage — how could it? — but in many ways Invisible Cities is all the more interesting for that. Calvino’s novella lives not in its narrative drive — can Marco Polo win his freedom with words, can his stories save his father’s life — but in its contemplative, parabolic side. That’s what makes it so quietly profound onstage. Theatre can conjure entire worlds out of thin air, then destroy them. As it nudges towards environmental questions, consumerist cities that beg questions about the cost of travel, Invisible Cities asks why we bother? Language, imagination and theatre can get us anywhere.