VICTORIA WHITE: This is not the spectacle Limerick needed — Wallace had the right one

SOME puppet show. There are moments when you despair for this country. One of those moments was when I heard Minister for the Arts, Jimmy Deenihan, thus describe on RTÉ Royale de Luxe, the theatre company whose proposed visit finally broke the relationship between Limerick City of Culture’s board and artistic director, Karl Wallace.

He wasn’t alone. Amidst all the debate, I didn’t hear a single media voice which attempted to understand what Karl Wallace was attempting to do for Limerick by proposing to spend a third of the year’s budget on this one show.

If it’s any consolation, Karl, I think I get it. Royale de Luxe have only performed in Ireland once, at the Galway Arts Festival in 1991. So vivid are my memories of this show that it came as some surprise to find I hadn’t been there. But I had edited a jaw-dropping account of the proceedings written by journalist Paddy Woodworth.

Woodworth stood, thunderstruck, in a car park in Galway as a cast of astonishing mechanical puppets told “The True History of France.”

Characters from history strode across the pages of a giant book portayed in ways never seen before — Joan of Arc, Napoleon and the Sun King, symbolised by a huge, blue hot air balloon “which bursts from between the pages of the book and soars above the auditorium and presumably is still drifting towards north Mayo at the time of writing…”

Let’s just assume this is perhaps not the image of France which the French Cultural Ministry would want to portray, to paraphrase former CEO Limerick City of Culture Patricia Ryan’s objections to that rap song by the Moyross Youth Crew. It shows how France’s history of colonisation and militarism led, among other things, to the mass slaughter of its citizens in world wars of the 20th century. Royale de Luxe recreated the horror of a First World War battle-field in that Galway car-park, “with explosions throwing earth all over the audience, the bodies tossed about like rag dolls.”

It’s no wonder Liverpool has chosen Royale de Luxe to perform a massive spectacular to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War at the end of July. Royale de Luxe are popular in Liverpool, having performed their huge Sea Creatures show there last summer, entertaining 800,000 people and generating £32m for the local economy.

Some puppet show, alright. But I guess I’ll have to take the ferry if I want to see Royale de Luxe. Because it’s hardly that they’ll be coming to Limerick now which is some triumph for ignorance.

I have not got confirmation as to exactly what Royale de Luxe were proposing for Limerick. But their new show is made with giant-sized puppets and is put together on-site in each individual city. A performance like this could be the game-changer that Limerick needs. Nobody cares much if Limerick has opening ceremonies with fireworks displays like everyone else or sold-out performances of Riverdance like everyone else.

The only thing which will change the perception of Limerick is showcasing what is distinctive about Limerick. That distinctiveness encompasses “Stab City” as well as the Hunt Museum.

Limerick is not as pretty as Cork or Dublin or Galway or Kilkenny. But it is fiercely distinctive. There’s a fighting spirit, perfectly articulated by Moyross Youth Crew’s rap, “It’s a city where we’re tough/ There’s no place I’d rather live”, even if “tough” rhymes with “rough.”

An attempt to discover the roots of that distinctiveness, from the Vikings and Normans to the Limerick pogrom, to rugby and hurling fanaticism, to radical voices, from Frank McCourt to Donogh and Des O’Malley to Jim Kemmy to Kevin Barry, could work the transformation the city needs.

It is hard to think of a better way to do this than by creating one huge, city-wide pageant during one weekend, exactly as Karl Wallace had proposed to do with world-leading exponents, Royale de Luxe. Wallace is an expert at spectacle, after all. He has been to the forefront of exploding the boundaries between theatre, music and dance since the days of his innovative works for Kabosh — through directing both theatre and opera to directing Siamsa Tíre.. He was given a job and he was doing it.

The Royale De Luxe show would have cost €1.8 million out of a total budget of €6m, but it is estimated that €1.5m of that would have been spent locally, paying an army of Limerick tradespeople and other workers who just might have felt for one weekend that there’s no place they’d rather live.

But the board, chaired by Pat Cox, was not equipped to understand what Wallace was talking about. Tragically for all concerned, one board member, Brian McEnery, explained his reluctance to approve Royale de Luxe in the terms of a property developer: “If you are building a house, the design team will want a huge footprint on the house, they’ll want balconies and they’ll want atriums but as a board … we were not in a position to sign off on €1.8m.”

But Karl Wallace wasn’t attempting to build a house. He was attempting to build a spectacle — one world-beating spectacle in the city of Limerick which might have changed its fortunes by show-casing its distinctiveness. And before you poo-poo the idea, remember that it is exactly what happened in Galway, which owes no small dose of prosperity to a foreign spectacle on its streets in 1985.

WORKERS in Nortel and Merit and Boston Scientific lifting cappuccinos at their desks today don’t remember a Galway in which there was one coffee shop, but I do. Many factors worked together to transform that city but few deny that Druid Theatre Company and Macnas were among them. And Macnas would not exist except that Galway Arts Festival director, Ollie Jennings, had the audacity to programme one massive spectacle for Galway in 1985, when the Catalan troupe Els Comediants took to the streets .

If he had to cow-tow to a chairman and board who had little experience of working in the arts, Els Comediants would never have come to Galway. Some class of puppet show? But Jennings was running an organisation founded by under-employed, under-funded and over-ambitious artists so he got away with it.

If I were making the decisions I would rush now to re-engage Royale de Luxe. It is very likely too late to do this and too late too for the attempt by business to use the arts to promote business which is Limerick City of Culture.

Interim Head of the City of Culture Mike Fitzpatrick has only one job to do and that is to hand the whole project back to artists.

Then there would still be just the sliver of a chance that we might glimpse, fleetingly, the city’s distinctive face.


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