Graeae and La Fura dels Baus
National Maritime Museum
On 22 June 2012
Review by Howard Loxton
The opening spectacle of the Greenwich and docklands International Festival, staged on the lawns in front of the Queen's House at Greenwich, was a collaboration between London-based Graeae and Barcelona's La Fura dels Baus.
I have long admired the work of Graeae, not only because they create accessible theatre that can be enjoyed by the deaf and sightless alongside more ordinarily-abled audiences and provide opportunities for disabled people of all kinds to be performers but for the quality of their creations.
I haven't seen La Fura dels Baus for many years, but I still remember the thrills when they brought Accions to the second ever LIFT (if I remember rightly) when in a huge east London warehouse a car was smashed to pieces by city-suited guys, near naked, white-daubed men strode through the promenading crowd clearing their way by swinging big metal balls on long chains, fought or embraced submerged in water tanks above our heads, hung wrapped in cling film, rolled around in barrels, flung paint over each other and were assaulted by a blast from firemen's hoses. All of this up close: stuff that "Health and Safety" wouldn't allow today. It was going to be interesting to see how these Catalans collaborated with our disabled performers, many not professionals but drawn from the community.
I passed a long queue along the pavement as performance time approached, but it was the roadside railings that caused the build up; at the entrance gate you could feed in alongside and I made my way around the edges of the crowd and then between the many sitting on the lawn, some having supper picnicked, until I found myself beside the huge figure of sleeping Prometheus. I'd hardly settled on the grass before the music composed by Jules Maxwell started and the show began with Simon McKeown's projections across the whole frontage of the Queen's House.
Prometheus's huge, segmented figure now lit up from inside and slowly began to rise. It may have been a giant puppet suspended from a gantry and operated by people controlling ropes, but that didn't stop it from being very impressive, perhaps made it more so, as it towered house-high above our heads.
I followed behind, along with a few others, as it made its way between the crowds along a laid out circuit of the lawn and took up station on the opposite side. (It always surprises me how few people take the opportunity to move in promenade situations, though in this case most of the performance was sufficiently high it could be seen from anywhere and I think most of those in wheelchairs were up close to the barriers that enclosed the central space so that their view would not be obscured.)
The source of music, light and Prometheus's pointing now guide the audience to show where they should concentrate their attention and what follows is not a narrative of the Prometheus myth but s spectacle that draws ideas from it. There is a montage of images on the house façade, including the breaking of the structure into collapsing pieces, there are ground level performers and aerial arrivals. There are giant bursts of flame accompanied by their roaring on the soundtrack: Prometheus's gift to man of fire.
No eagle comes down from the skies to peck his liver as mythology tells it, but a bomb-like shape arrives, crane-borne above us. Is it a modern equivalent of Zeus's bird sent by the gods of market management to blast his innards in punishment for giving humans fire's free ownership? No, there is movement inside it. The kit-bag-like bottom opens and out tumbles a woman suspended on a chain, a reminder of the one that tied Prometheus to a rock, but as she is lowered to ground and then escapes, it is an echo of Prometheus Unbound.
In front of the Queen's House, a group of white-clad figures appear dancing, or so it seems, on the terrace balustrade; they reach out to Prometheus and he to them, in supplication or in homage. They raise a figure lying prone: a one-legged dancer who performers a twirling, swirling ballet using her draperies and crutches, a colloquy with Prometheus.
A line of figures bears flaming torches through the audience. Another aerial arrival is a trellised dome on whose surface are outstretched, white-clad figures, as they circle way above our heads and then are slowly lowered, they perform acrobatic variations. Behind the crowd, roadside, a giant wheel starts turning, like one that William Dudley designed for the final part of the National Theatre's Mysteries, with people inside it.
But this is not Hell's treadmill; it moves, rolling backwards and forwards then through the crowd, to the lawn's centre. Two further images of incarceration are followed by freedom. Then there is another airborne spectacle: what seems a multitude of people suspended over our heads in one great phalanx, matching the music with their gesture, until there is a great burst of fireworks above and around them to bring the spectacle to a close.
Directors Amit Sharma (Graeae) and Pera Tantira (La Fura) and choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller didn't disappoint, the crowd roared its approval. La Fura may not be so aggressively macho as I remember but they've lost none of their daring and Graeae has once again shown that disability doesn't stop you doing amazing things.
If you live in the northeast you can catch this spectacular 40 minutes when it is staged again at Stockton-on-Tees on 1 August for it will also open the 2012 Stockton International Riverside Festival.