Here be giants


ARTS:Tonight Belfast’s Titanic Quarter will be larging it up with an imaginative spectacle on a vast scale, writes ROSITA BOLAND

LAND OF GIANTS is the striking name of one of the biggest outdoor cultural events ever staged in Northern Ireland. Tonight, no matter what the weather, the former slipways of the Titanic Quarter will be the site of a spectacular, free 45-minute show involving 500 performers, eight shipping containers, cranes, cherry pickers – and an audience of 18,000 people.

There is no stage and no seating at Land of Giants, which will start in the fading light of a summer’s day at 10.30pm, and end with fireworks and darkness. Audiences will stand in two groups of 9,000, either in the former Titanic slipway or in the Olympic slipway. Between them will be a staggered line of shipping containers, that will act as the show’s runway or platform.

Think big. Think loud. There will be 160 drummers. Choirs of 200 people. Aerialists flying between cranes and cherry pickers. Storeys-high digital animations projected on to the walls of the dramatic new Titanic building.

Mark Murphy, the Manchester-based artistic director of the project, spent 18 months planning and choreographing it. Much of the work was done on his computer: the logistics of producing such a gigantic project meant rehearsals could only be done in fragments, over just a few weeks. For instance, it’s not the easiest task to muster 160 drummers from across the country. The many drumming groups include the Exhausted Farmers from Enniskillen, Samba Mambas from Drogheda, and Itchyfeet from Dublin.

“When I got the commission, it had already been decided that giants were going to be the theme,” Murphy explains. The show makes reference to places, people and things that feature large in Northern Ireland’s landscape and history, such as the Giant’s Causeway, the Titanic, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver.

The show was always going to be site-specific, on the Titanic slipways. While trying to figure out what he was going to create, Murphy paced the area incessantly. “I wanted to have a balance of the intimate and the epic,” he explains. At the time he was doing this, the Titanic building was being constructed alongside the site. A century previously, the people of Belfast had watched the world’s biggest ship being built in its docks. Now they were watching as their city got its most-talked about building of recent times. During the months it was going up, Murphy was also planning how to incorporate the structure with its shining aluminium facade into his show.

“I kept thinking at the beginning, where is the best place to put the audience?” he recalls. Quite early on, he decided to stage the show above the audience, so that everyone could see everything. From then on, his idea for a vertical, overhead show progressed.

“You have to put the performers up on something, so we’ll have eight shipping containers in a staggered line in the middle of the audience.” The containers, in addition to being high, are also in keeping with the docklands location.

Graham Robinson, a computer scientist who works in digital animation, has made the beautiful and imaginative film that will be projected on the walls of the Titanic building. A piece of artwork itself, the seven-minute animation will appear on the building like pages being turned on an immense book. “You’re like an artist working on a very large canvas,” Robinson says. The hand-drawn frames include references to Northern Ireland’s industrial history of linen-making and ship-building. Northern Irish Poet Sinéad Morrissey was commissioned to write the lyrical text that weaves the show together, which she also narrates.

Any show on such a large scale has to have flexibility. Thus, there is only the loosest of storylines, involving a young Belfast girl, Grace, and her travels through time. The storyline doesn’t matter. Land of Giants is all about showcasing imagination, spectacle, and sound on a vast scale. “It will feel like watching an action movie,” Murphy promises.

“We’re not used to this kind of spend on the arts, and Northern Ireland has suffered from lack of funding for the arts sector,” points out Kathy Hayes, the show’s associate producer.

The £1.2 million project is being funded and supported by a number of organisations. They include Legacy Trust UK, which is partially funded by the British Lottery, and established specifically to make “a lasting cultural and sporting legacy from London 2012”, by creating what’s being called the “Cultural Olympiad”.

Among the performers are a handful of professional aerialists, some of whom have been working for the past few weeks with 18 members of Belfast’s Circus School. Those students will also be in the show, and the idea is that the training they receive will count as part of the cultural legacy of the project.

The hope is that the show will be talked about for a long time to come, and that the slipways hereafter will be associated in the public mind not just with ship-building, but with the arts. The message is clear: the arts can belong anywhere. That is the ultimate aim of the Cultural Olympiad.

The only remaining question is, what happens if it rains tonight?

“People will get wet,” is Murphy’s pragmatic reply. Giants aren’t bothered by rain. And as for the rest of us, well, we’re used to it.

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