Walking In The Footsteps Of Giants

s_r18_71390039One of the most fascinating companies that has been gaining an international reputation in the last few years is Royal de Luxe. Founded in 1979 by writer and director Jean-Luc Courcoult, the company has played to 18 million spectators in more than 170 cities across the globe. In and of itself, this is impressive, but it is the nature of their work that makes them extraordinary. The company, based in Nantes, France, create giant, and I mean giant, puppets that appear in site-specific shows which take over whole cities, the narrative played out in front of thousands of people at a time. They have a reputation of being one of the best street theatre companies in the world and it isn’t hard to see why. Theatre critic Lynn Gardner, gave one of their shows, Sea Odessy, a five-star rating, and spoke about the audience reaction thus:

Look at the faces of the audience and you see wonder.

Yes, this is a spectacle, but one that in its simple storytelling, skilled manipulations of the lifelike puppets (the little girl seems steeped in watchful sadness; her dog gamboling through the streets, his tongue lolling) and playful changes of scale offers a theatrical experience that is both epic and intimate, joyful and sometimes sad. Follow it through, rather than just glimpsing it as a carnival-style parade, and you become as much invested in it as you do in King Lear, and as admiring of the craft and imagination employed to put it together.

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It’s certainly a marvel, but it is not just the extraordinary feats of engineering that hold the attention. These giants may dwarf us and even our great cities…….but it is human endeavour that animates them.

Tiny figures in wine-coloured coats crawl across the bodies of the little girl and diver like Lilliputians. Each step of the diver takes gargantuan human efforts. The result is inclusive theatre where young and old rub shoulders with the giants. We walk together in their footsteps, and we walk taller because they are with us.

If your French is any good, there is a fabulous documentary about the company and their work:

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Another one, this time in English, from the BBC, covers a 2012 visit of the company to Liverpool, UK, as part of the 100 year commemorations of the sinking of The Titanic

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What I love about their work is not just the sheer scale of it, but the way they bring theatre to a much wider audience.  Theatre critic Catherine Usher commented that:

The Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular tapped into something very special in terms of public reception and makes extremely significant steps towards a successful future for large-scale street theatre…..

The reactions that both Usher and Gardner speak about are evident here in this video. Royal de Luxe are truly a global company having performed in a diversity of countries – from Vietnam to Chile, Iceland to Australia – the list is long and impressive. Not all their performances include The Giants, but never the less they certainly have a global reach, as this set of images from The Atlantic shows.

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The latest performance for The Giants is happening this weekend, again in the city of Liverpool in the UK, which seems to have taken the company and their puppets to it’s heart. This time, as part of the commemorations of World War I.

For BBC Arts, Actor Sue Johnston, from Liverpool herself,  has written about the emotional power of these now iconic giant marionettes:

Growing up in the 1960s and spending so many years in the world of entertainment, I have seen and been part of some incredible things……I have been lucky enough to have had some experiences that I will remember for ever.

But one of the things I will never forget came two years ago, when alongside tens of thousands of people from my hometown, I took to the streets to follow a 30ft wooden ‘giant’, her uncle and her dog around the streets of Liverpool.

The city truly fell in love with those characters, and the French artists – Royal De Luxe – who brought them to life.

On that occasion, the giants came to Liverpool to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic – a seismic moment in history and certainly for the city, where so many of the crew from the ship were from. Some questioned if these giants were an appropriate way to commemorate such a disaster.

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They were proved spectacularly wrong.

This week, Royal De Luxe return to the city, and this time to mark something even bigger in our history – the centenary of WW1.Liverpool was the birthplace of the Pals regiments – groups of friends who, with the words of Lord Derby and Kitchener ringing in their ears, signed up together to go on an adventure abroad from which so few of them ever returned. Over the course of the coming years, there will be hundreds of commemorations around that terrible war – some big national moments and some small intimate affairs – but for me, it is this performance – titled Memories of 1914 – which I know will be as powerful as anything which will follow it.

Artistic endeavour such as this – big, bold and exciting – is a vital way for us to mark key historical events, no matter how sombre. They engage our senses and emotions in a way that other forms of commemoration would never be able to, and they break down barriers of age, class and race effortlessly. What is so compelling for me about Royal De Luxe is the way that they take the art to the people rather than wait for the people to come to them.

Between them, the three giants who will be in the city this week – the little girl and her dog again, but this time joined by a brand new grandmother giant – will travel a total of 30 miles around the city, going down the streets of forgotten terraces, past the two incredible cathedrals which hug the Merseyside skyline, and into parks quite a way off of the beaten track.

Vielle Geante (Old Giant), a puppet in the Royal de Luxe street theatre production Le Mur de Planck

This spectacle will engage and impact more people in this story, than any normal form of commemoration ever could, getting people to invest in something they didn’t even know they should care about.

Art can do this. It can touch us, thrill us, enrage us and engage us in things we might otherwise just let us pass by or choose to ignore. It makes us look and think differently about ourselves, where we live, our history and our future.

I have been lucky enough to be at the centre of some of those moments myself, but this week I am looking forward to experiencing it again, like everyone else. Being one of the million people who are due to come together to commemorate, pay our respects and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice, by being brought together by a giant girl, her grandmother and a dog.

Only art will ever be able to do that.

What Johnston doesn’t mention is that the puppets are so large that the company employ local volunteers wherever they perform to be assistant puppeteers, otherwise known as Lilliputians. One such volunteer is Colin Bordley, who talks about his experiences here.

I’ll leave the final words to their creator, Jean-Luc Courcoult, explaining how his characters come to life:

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