When giants walk the earth

Royal de Luxe’s planned Limerick show has not been without controversy. But to see it in action in Liverpool makes you appreciate that this is not a diversion – it’s an investment in the city

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

An old woman dozes in the hot morning sun, her chest rising and dipping to the rumble of a snore that reverberates through the concourse of St George’s Hall in Liverpool. For two days she has lain inside the grand hall, stretched flat and receiving thousands of visitors, like a dignitary lying in state, but now it is time to get up. An eight-metre colossus with a soft and sympathetic face, she rests in a wheelchair while the streets nearby teem with people. A new journey is about to begin.

Royal de Luxe, street-theatre specialists from Nantes in France, have a way of creating a gargantuan spectacle, buttressed with ceremony and peppered with myths. The Grandmother, as this towering creation is called, has a number of backstories, the most comprehensible of which puts her age at 85 and traces her origins as half-Breton, half-Irish – something alluded to in her dress, a turquoise number patterned with shamrocks. In another biography, given by Jean-Luc Courcoult, founder of Royal de Luxe, she actually predates the big bang and arrived from a galaxy 14 billion light-years away.

There are, doubtless, some people who will understand that instinctively, but others can cleave to more concrete details, such as her fondness for pipes, whiskey or farting – which she does regularly and with a waft of vanilla.

Just don’t call her a puppet. When company members mention her they speak of the Grandmother as a family member, although, paradoxically, she is the youngest relative. Created two months ago, she is the most advanced of their marionettes, and has already featured in two of the company’s performances: a piece in Nantes entitled The Planck Wall and, last weekend, Liverpool’s Memories of August 1914, part of the city’s commemoration of the first World War.

Her next journey will be to Limerick, as part of Limerick City of Culture, an excursion that has not been without controversy.

The centrepiece of the original programme put together by Karl Wallace, the year’s former artistic director, it was notoriously described by the then arts minister, Jimmy Deenihan, as “some puppet show” when it emerged that the board had refused to sanction the event because of its price.

Reported as costing anything between €1.6 million and €1.8 million, in reality it came closer to €1.2 million, with just €315,000 of that paid to the company, and the remainder invested locally, in health and safety, technicians, site managers and local performers.

To see the event in action in Liverpool, retained for Limerick by Wallace’s successor, Mike Fitzpatrick, is to understand how such an event is not an extravagant diversion but an investment in a city.

They line up on the steps of St George’s Hall, 26 of them, all wearing ruby-red frock coats with elegant, Georgian cuts. These are the Lilliputians, the operators of the enormous marionettes. The giants are never quite inanimate, but they need to be roused, so a handful of Lilliputians scale her body, gently caressing the Grandmother’s face, stroking her fingers and whispering to her. When she rises there are gasps and cheers from the Liverpudlian crowds, but nothing quite rivals the excitement of seeing her take her first steps.

Illusion and elbow grease

The marionette’s mechanics are pleasingly exposed and old-fashioned, a series of ropes and pulleys, and to raise her feet the Lilliputians run and leap from a platform while hoisting a heavy rope, like indefatigable bell-ringers. Every small step comes with a huge effort, and you appreciate both the illusion and elbow grease in the same moment.

Moving in a procession ahead of the giant gives you a more entrancing perspective, though; the clear, unimpeded view of a city brought to a standstill. Royal de Luxe decides a route for its looming giants, closes roads to traffic and swells the avenues with spectators, taking back the streets for its event, which is staged, as Limerick’s will be next month, over three days.

The city becomes an expansive viewing gallery, every high-rise window filled with faces, families clambering on to the roofs of bus shelters. There are reasons to find an elevated view. Rounding the corner of Castle Street and Water Street, the Grandmother passes the balcony of Liverpool Town Hall, peering and nodding to viewers at her eye level. Someone in the crowd wolf-whistles, and she nods back, demur and satisfied. She is no shrinking violet, though; at another point she squats on a street corner to relieve herself while the Lilliputians turn tactfully away.

The genius of Royal de Luxe, though, is to focus the attention of an entire city on one event. Everybody is watching and the viewers make an astonishing spectacle.

Courcoult, who founded the company as a modest busking operation in 1979, moves through the performance unnoticed, which must be an uncommon sensation for so distinctive a man. In his late 60s, wearing a rich blue shirt, a bright pink jacket and huge black rimmed spectacles that might have been borrowed from a cartoon character, he regards his creation thoughtfully, occasionally issuing instructions to members of the team.

His daughter, Margot Courcoult, works as a Lilliputian with the company; on this day she is operating the Little Girl Giant, who has taken another path through Liverpool with her dog, Xolo.

Margot speaks with a rhetorical lilt of French syntax in an English accent. When asked to consider the company’s charter, to be conspicuous and invisible at the same time, she responds: “We’re wearing bright red, yes? We shout, yes? We still get people saying, ‘So how does she move?’ Because you’re not trying to hide it, people forget it. Also, to give a puppet its soul, you have to take the souls of all of the operators. I think it’s one of the reasons the giants are so powerful. You’ve got 20-30 people’s energy going into one thing, which also makes them seem bigger.”

‘The Saga of the Giants’

Royal de Luxe started making giant shows in 1993, with the intention that The Saga of the Giants would tell the stories of each city it visited.

“It’s very much tailored to any city that we go to,” says Margot. “It’s always at one with the city itself and its history, the legends and the myths.”

The Grandmother will make her trip to Limerick alone, and it is still unclear what story she will portray there. Courcoult has consulted Limerick historians and archivists, traditional Irish dance and music groups, and even sports experts, so the event entitled The Giant’s Journey is likely to take her back to the dance halls and playing fields of nostalgia.

Iseult Byrne is the project director for Royal de Luxe’s Limerick visit. She has worked for almost a year with the company and is as conscious as anyone of the practicalities involved, which include liaising with gardaí and traffic controllers in Limerick while working out the dismantling and delivery of a three-storey puppet and a five-tonne wheelchair. Despite all the logistics, her tone is one of unabashed wonder.

“You can watch the giant and be mesmerised by the really clever timing and all the different elements of manipulation that make this marionette so human,” she says, “but the Lilliputians say the audiences fundamentally don’t see them. They just go with the magic.”

What does she think the giants do for their hosts? “It transforms the way you engage with a city, the way you look at it, what your city can do.”

Rather than spectacles, the giants are spectators, perhaps even tour guides: you see the city through new eyes, from dizzying perspectives. “It takes you away into your imagination and allows a moment that people can have within the city of Limerick. You just think, wow, this is a different city.”

The Giant’s Journey takes place in Limerick, as part of Limerick City of Culture, September 5th-7th. limerickcityofculture.ie

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