La Fura dels Baus
Spiller’s Quay, Newcastle (courtesy The Sage)

The SummerTyne festival got off to the sort of seasonal start that pessimists like me had predicted. We stood outside on Spiller’s Quay for a multi-media performance happening partly on the converted ferry moored alongside and partly on the quay among the crowd – and as it got darker and steadily damper, the 75 minutes playing time began to seem much longer

Perhaps a glorious evening of gently waning summer heat would have improved my appreciation of the piece and taken my mind off the adverse effects of standing in the rain and the long, wet walk back, but I suspect I would have still have emerged with the same mixed reaction. At points this really made me go “Wow”: at others I just lost patience with it. Part of the problem was starting with the sort of high hopes that often seem to court disappointment. Expecting less, I might have enjoyed more.

Difficult, though, to expect anything other than world-class excellence when company comes with such a pedigree. La Fura dels Baus is a Catalan group whose visually amazing performances have been seen worldwide. They blur conventional distinctions between audience and performers, different kinds of media and various categorisations of art/entertainment – and they do it on an epic scale. They are still probably best known for orchestrating the opening ceremony of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, though more recently they’ve been getting a lot of press for their forays into opera. They don’t often appear in Britain (the large scale of their work makes it very expensive) but booking them for a show on Tyneside had been mooted as part of Newcastle’s bid to be City of Culture. We didn’t win the bid, but it was a great gesture to bring them over anyway, for the only UK performance of their latest piece – and a thoughtfully affordable ticket price made the necessary discomforts of the venue feel quite acceptable. Indeed, there was something of a fairground atmosphere, with the inevitable chips and coffee on sale and porta-loos in evidence.

Trouble is, it wasn’t just a side-show we were there to see, and that’s where it disappointed. There should have been a note of warning in the fact that the name of the company loomed much larger than the name of the piece (and I’m still not sure whether it was called Naumachia or just Naumon, the name of the ship) (It's Naumachia - editor). Some fabulous effects, music, artistry and sheer physical daring were brought together, but I rather wish they had been done as a circus or an abstract performance. When it came to tying them together as a narrative, I can only say that I’m glad the aerial performers had a stronger web of connections.

Live music warms us up, as performers spring about to indicate that things are about to start. A woman in red sings an aria from the dizzying heights of a huge crane. A giant articulated puppet, translucent and featureless, rears up from the ship and takes on an eerie life as, with brilliantly focussed lighting, a real face is projected onto its head and begins to speak. It holds a conversation with a similar figure slumped on the quayside. Earth is on a bit of a downer and we need to buck up our ideas.

The wonder of life (I’m already guessing as to meaning here) is brought to us via a doughty group of local volunteer climbers who, kitted up in what look like grey sperm suits, variously group, gesture and hang from a frame resembling mobile vertebrae, again moving so far above us that we daren’t even calculate its height (or the insurance costs.) That really was pretty breath-taking.

The moment I lost patience was when a huge ball (reminiscent of the paper lampshades that once graced every student’s bedroom) became the screen for projections about the origins of the earth and its current problems, complete with voice-over. Never mind the scale and the technical brilliance, the flatly didactic script still operated like a well-meaning school pageant. After that there was more of everything, but I’d honestly ceased to fit it together. The web of aerialists was stunning irrespective of context, as (for different reasons) was the moment when one of the giants walked among us and we could see what a skill and strength it took to operate it. The overblown duet from Don Giovanni was great fun if inexplicable, and the specially composed music from Alistair Anderson, played by performers on board the ship, was captivatingly lively. At one point the sound system failed and a singer was left performing a suddenly inaudible aria (though under the circumstances, it’s a tribute to her voice that it was even faintly audible). The unexpected advantage of this was to bring home that the music really was live – people had clearly assumed that, in keeping with the technological expertise on display, everything was pre-recorded.

By the end I had honestly had enough – but one thing not on offer was closure. Given the fragmentary nature of the action, and the grand generalities of its script, it wasn’t possible to be sure when it had ended. I think that the intoning of such sentiments as “The storm rocks the sea-snail to sleep” indicated a generally hopeful conclusion, but I was only certain everything was finished when a loudspeaker announcement started telling us about the rest of the weekend’s events. Despite some stunning visual theatre, I’d lost the plot some time earlier and had to fight a growing inclination to wander back to the comforts of home. I would love to see La Fura dels Baus perform something already scripted that imposed its own dramatic structure, such as an opera, but their well-meaning grand-scale symbolism left me slightly colder than the July drizzle.

Reviewer: Gail-Nina Anderson

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