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At the Manchester International Festival, Bigger Isn’t Better

MANCHESTER, England — The play’s not quite the thing at this year’s Manchester International Festival. A showcase for homegrown and international art in this former industrial capital, it is unique in Britain for its interdisciplinary reach. Alongside the profusion of performance and visual arts, however, theater remains the festival’s main focus, and its opening weekend highlighted two ambitious yet flawed world premiere productions.

Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Tree” arrived at the festival under a cloud of controversy, after two writers claimed that their work on the play hadn’t been properly acknowledged or compensated. Both of the show’s creators deny the accusations.

Mr. Kwei-Armah is the artistic director of the Young Vic theater in London, where the show will transfer later this month. He has collaborated with Mr. Elba, best known as an actor, on this semi-autobiographical tale about a young mixed-race man in London who sets off for South Africa to uncover the truth about his family.

Mr. Kwei-Armah’s inventive direction, which transforms the Upper Campfield Market Hall into a nightclub of sorts, with a bar and D.J., is its most impressive feature. A standing audience gathers around the raised stage, and the spectators are tasked with carrying props and signs. On a more basic level, the production draws them in by inviting them onto the dance floor before and after the performance.

All of this is far more engaging than the play itself, whose ideas are thinly dramatized and whose characters are barely developed. It is a visually and musically bold evening, but the script takes a back seat to the production’s immersive ambitions.

In place of development and dramatic tension, the play offers wooden dialogue that even the most seasoned members of the cast can’t transcend. But Lucy Briggs-Owen comes closest as the protagonist’s white mother, who is glimpsed in the play’s numerous (and awkwardly inserted) flashbacks and dream sequences.

Whether by accident or design, “Alphabus,” a spoken-word and dance piece by Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray, felt like a miniature version of “Tree.” Across the street at the Great Northern Warehouse, the audience was once again arrayed around a raised platform to watch this brisk hourlong production, which combined poetry, flexing — a virtuosic street dance style — and beats to weave a modern fable about the origin of language. The dialogue was frequently lofty, but it felt less out of place than the grand pronouncements in “Tree,” a show that made a greater claim to realism.

Drama, dance and music were whipped together in an even more crazy-quilt way in “Invisible Cities,” a colossal production inspired by Italo Calvino’s classic novel of the same name. It was directed by Leo Warner, who seems to have been given an unlimited budget for this cosmic romp of sensory overload.

Imposingly staged inside Mayfield, a former railway station, the elaborate production felt as exhausting as a two-hour Disneyland ride. And with its CGI projections and adventure-film soundtrack, it better captured the spirit of a video game than the poetic wit of the innovative Italian fabulist.

Calvino’s slim novel is a travelogue through 55 imaginary cities conjured up by Marco Polo, presented in a dialogue between the Venetian explorer and the emperor Kublai Khan.

At Mayfield, the audience watches their exchange from stadium bleachers on four sides of a massive set. Dizzying projections continually light it up to depict both Khan’s palace and the chimerical metropolises conjured by the explorer. An endless assortment of computer-animated landscapes — caverns, deserts, tropical forests and so on — are projected onto curtains that ring the entire set during scene changes.

When the second-act curtain rises on an actual waterway built through the stage to depict a Venetian canal, the effect is momentarily staggering — until the real water begins to move and overflow by means of digital trickery. Why does an onstage pool need to be digitally enhanced?

The production’s bulwark against this CGI frenzy is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a prolific Flemish-Moroccan choreographer, who here directs the London-based modern dance company Rambert. Flamboyant, sweaty, virtuosic and precise, the evocative choreography provides the lion’s share of the evening’s artistic excellence.

With dazzling inventiveness, the 22 dancers assemble themselves as ferocious beasts, tangle themselves up in elastic bands in an elaborate game of cat’s cradle and walk nimbly on stilts. They evoke the invisible cities far more effectively than any amount of expensive technology.

But the choreographic inventiveness tumbles forth at a frantic clip. As with everything in “Invisible Cities,” less would have been more. Everything, including the epic music and the thick sound design, ensures that there is never any space for quiet contemplation. The production seems beset by panic at the thought of the audience being less than wowed at all times.

There was more room for reflection in “Atmospheric Memory,” an immersive multimedia installation by the Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer that is the most ambitious art project at this year’s festival. Housed in a huge chamber assembled from shipping containers on the grounds of the Science and Industry Museum, the labyrinthine exhibit is itself a kind of “invisible city.”

Cascading overhead lights usher the visitor down a hallway thick with 3,000 audio channels of natural and industrial sounds that leads to a temple-like exhibition space, where works inspired by Charles Babbage, the 19th-century English polymath sometimes considered the “father of the computer,” are on show.

Babbage theorized the atmosphere around us as a vast library containing every utterance ever breathed, and he dreamed of a device that would enable us to decode those voices hidden in the ether.

In the most visually arresting (and coolest) section of “Atmospheric Memory,” visitors speak into a microphone the names of things that they would like to see disappear. Those words and phrases then appear written in water vapor on a wall-length display, where they hover for several seconds before evaporating. While I stood looking at the display, a visitor bent over to whisper his wishes. Seconds later, “Hunger” and “Donald Trump” materialized and vanished into thin air.

The festival’s attempt to connect with contemporary issues also included Sunday’s daylong program to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, a watershed moment in British democracy, in which a cavalry charged into peaceful protesters demanding parliamentary representation in St. Peter’s Square in central Manchester. Fifteen people were killed.

In the lead-up to the evening’s world premiere of an oratorio by the British composer Emily Howard, commissioned by the festival, the theater collective ANU devised a series of 15 short theatrical “interventions” that explore the protest’s contemporary importance.

In one of them, “Prophet,” a cheeky reflection on the gig economy, an Uber-style driver and a food delivery cyclist have a heated altercation in an alleyway close to St. Peter’s Square. As the foul-mouthed driver, Michael Glenn Murphy questions why the city sinks so much money into the festival, rather than deal with homelessness. David Fawaz, as the hapless Nigerian delivery guy who delivers the wrong pizza, spars with Murphy about labor fairness, corporate responsibility and race.

Surrounded by a large crowd of spectators, the two actors made their quarrel immediate and plausible, and the sharp, quick-witted dialogue laid out the moral stakes without ever being preachy. In 20 minutes outside on a near-empty street, these two actors managed to pack in more relevance, pathos and dramatic excitement than either “Tree” or “Invisible Cities,” with all their vast resources.

Manchester International Festival
Various venues around Manchester, England, through July 21; mif.co.uk.

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