Having previously tackled Paul Auster’s metaphysical novella City of Glass, 59 Productions joins forces with Rambert and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to stage Italo Calvino’s philosophical novel. Performed in Mayfield, a cavernous, derelict railway station, the whole thing is epic in scale. A canal has been constructed in the centre of the space. Vast curtains double as video screens for cinematic projections.
Lolita Chakrabarti – whose acclaimed adaptation of Life of Pi is at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre – has been tasked with finding a dramatic shape for Calvino’s travelogue of the imagination. The production takes the form of a series of encounters between trader and explorer Marco Polo (Matthew Leonhart) and the emperor Kublai Khan (Danny Sapani), about fantastical cities – of earth, of air, sewer cities, tower cities.
Cherkaoui’s choreography is often dazzling. The dancers appear to shapeshift. They morph into shrouded spirits or fuse their bodies together to become demonic creatures; they stalk the stage on stilts. The projections – of seascapes, sand dunes, the interior of an eye, the fractal patterns of a leaf – are also stunning. The movement sequences are thrilling. The cathedral-like nature of the space makes it well suited to spectacle, but not intimacy.
There are many scenes in which the two men boom portentous dialogue at one another. A later sequence in which the space is flooded with rubbish, with shopping bags and single-use coffee cups, is unarguably timely, if rather blunt.
59 Productions’ Leo Warner clearly relishes the challenges of staging novels of ideas. But the scale ends up working against the piece. The different elements struggle to cohere. The words feel inert, but there’s poetic power in the choreography and the space itself – a ghost space, decaying, water dripping from the ceiling, nature reasserting itself.