June 13, 2014 6:31 pm

Giant puppets for a big centenary

French street theatre company to mark the first world war centenary with colossal marionettes
'Vielle Geante' (Old Giant), a giant puppet part of the new street theatre production by French company Royal de Luxe entitled 'Le Mur de Planck' (The Wall of Planck), wheels through the streets of Nantes, western France, on June 7 2014©AFP

The Grandmother wheels through the streets of Nantes in ‘Le Mur de Planck’ (AFP)

It’s not often you turn a street corner and run into a giant casually striding down a boulevard. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: French street theatre company Royal de Luxe, based in Nantes, has been turning cities around the world into playgrounds for two decades. Londoners may remember their outsized “Sultan’s Elephant”, which cavorted around Trafalgar Square in 2006.

This summer, they’ll be in Liverpool, where “Sea Odyssey”, a commemoration of the sinking of the Titanic, drew 800,000 people in 2012. Their new project, “Memories of August 1914” will be the biggest among this year’s 14-18 Now commissions to mark the centenary of the first world war.

In the meantime, director Jean-Luc Courcoult has just unveiled his latest creation on home ground, “Le Mur de Planck”. With a public transport strike conveniently scheduled around the parade and no taxis in sight outside the train station, Nantes couldn’t have felt more French for the occasion, and yet the mood was cheerful and convivial. A couple buying croissants could be overheard discussing the merits of this year’s itinerary with the baker; two minutes later, a kid on a bike stopped me excitedly to ask if I’d spotted the giants.

And soon enough, the colossal marionettes materialised. In addition to the Little Giant, a black puppet created during a 1998 residency in Africa, “Planck” was designed to unveil the latest addition to the puppet family: the Grandmother, a eight-metre giant who is the company’s most lifelike creation to date. The craftsmanship is evident in her blue nightdress and sheepskin slippers, and her face, made of latex where previous giants were mostly in wood, is incredibly mobile, complete with wobbly chin and lips: it seems to take in the entire crowd with a faintly amused smile as her head sways from side to side. She speaks – another novelty – and also spits and farts, to the delight of the audience.

Each giant comes with its own soundtrack, and last weekend, Courcoult, a whimsical figure with his pink shirt, orange vest and straw hat, could be found perched on a truck alongside the Grandmother’s pop-rock act, rocking some leg shakes.

The director founded Royal de Luxe in 1979 as a street theatre venture performing for free, and survived on donations from audience members. When I meet him the next day, he is full of adrenalin, and jumps when I suggest the weekend seems to be going well. “No, I’m not happy! There are a lot of details you can’t see. But it’s up to people to make up their own story.”

For the company, which also produces human-sized theatre, giant shows are a 24/7 commitment over three to four days, with the outsized figures always in sight. Each giant is tended by 20 to 25 Lilliputians, as the specialist puppeteers who handle the cranes, electrical system and hydraulics used to animate them are called. At night, the giants can be found sleeping in squares, tucked in for the night and breathing heavily. During the day, they walk from location to location, stopping along the way for an oversized snack.

Royal de Luxe’s shows are also steeped in history. In Berlin, for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, they scattered replicas of letters once confiscated by the Stasi; “Le Mur de Planck” features tales based on Nantes’ history, told by the Grandmother in a bespoke mix of Breton and Irish and translated by a human narrator.

After the success of “Sea Odyssey”, the Labour mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, immediately asked Royal de Luxe back – and the centenary of 1914 provided the opportunity. “Street theatre can bring it to life,” Anderson said in Nantes, “it’ll engage young people and help them understand it.”

“Memories of August 2014” will focus on the Liverpool Pals Battalions. Courcoult and his team visited care homes and former King’s Regiment members around Liverpool to collect indirect memories of the war. The Grandmother will be in attendance (along with the dog Xolo, a Liverpool favourite Anderson personally requested) but the story is still under wraps.

The logistics involved are as tricky as the giants’ delicate machinery. Three cargo ships and 110 people (Lilliputians, technicians, musicians . . . ) will travel to Liverpool. On the ground in Nantes, dozens of volunteers in orange T-shirts were also drafted to move the crowds along. When all goes well, the giants have the uncanny ability to bring local populations together – and show cities in a different, warmer light.

Giants don’t come cheap: the estimated budget for “Memories of August 2014” is £1.7m-£2.0m, underwritten by the city of Liverpool and co-funded by the Arts Council, 14-18 Now, the European Regional Development Fund and private sponsorship. For Anderson, however, it is a worthwhile investment: the performances reach out to parts of the city with limited access to the arts, and the economic impact of the company’s 2012 visit was estimated at £32m.

Given the similarities between Nantes and Liverpool – both cities once associated with the slave trade and, in recent decades, with industrial decline – Courcoult didn’t think twice. “There are always traumatic moments in the history of a city, and it leaves traces behind,” he says. “We don’t heal wounds, but we can look at them with some distance, and see if we can avoid making the same mistakes.”

Royal de Luxe performs ‘Memories of August 1914’ in Liverpool as part of 14–18 Now’ on July 23-27

1418now.org.uk

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