The rain started just about the same time as the show. Eighteen thousand people had been given free tickets. Only those of us who were related to someone involved in the production actually used them, turning out on a cold, wet, blowy night to see ” Land of Giants”.
The show took place on the site of the old Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. Ships aren’t built here any more and so the dry dock has been filled in and the land has been named the Titanic Quarter, for this is where the big boat was built one hundred years ago. In Belfast, the industrial site that spawned a sunken ship passes as a tourist attraction. There is no shortage of square footage. This space is like a vast urban parking lot, flint-floored with shrapnel shards of stone.
Land of Giants was funded by £1.2m of public money, as part of the United Kingdom’s celebration of the Olympics. All over Great Britain and Northern Ireland, investment has been made in community arts, presumably to show that, like the ancient Greeks, ours is a culture that cares about sporting greatness and about aesthetics and creativity. Like the modern Greeks, we do not have money to burn, but pyrotechnics were nonetheless a big part of last night’s performance.
There was no printed program to accompany Mark Murphy’s show and so all I can share with you was my own take on what it was all about. We started, as best I can tell, with the formation of the Giant’s Causeway. Lambeg drums beat out a tyrant’s tattoo and flaming beacons lit up the night sky. Pictures of basalt hexagons were projected on to the frontage of the Titanic Museum building, shaped like the prow of the doomed ocean liner. Milhous, fearing that he would be forced to endure the entire history of our Province starting from our deep geological past, decided to walk back to his hotel. The Contessa pulled her anorak hood tighter and I buttoned the neck of the worsted coat she lent me. We were cold, we were wet but in Northern Ireland, we told ourselves, rain is an intrinsic part of the cultural experience.
Oddly, the show had been designed to face away from Belfast’s signature scenery–the two giant cranes from H&W, nicknamed Samson and Goliath. The Contessa, Milhous and I had remarked on this as we stood shivering, waiting for the show to start at 10:37pm when darkness would eventually fall. The only thing to look at was the luckless stage manager working on the boardwalk built on top of the industrial containers (the kind usually attached to lorries) that formed the 140 meter stage. His job was to staple a series of ribbons to meet in the middle of the walkway–ribbons the first dancer could send asunder in her first run of the one-night show. Unfortunately it was so bleak and blustery that the ribbons flew apart each time they were fixed. The show finally started with them clinging damply over the edge of the stage, a straggled fringe of failure.
Most of the performers in the (alleged) extravaganza were from Northern Ireland but presumably not the aerialists, who periodically swung from gantries high above the audience. Readers of Seamus Heaney will know that we are people of the clod. Air is not our element and here we like to keep our feet firmly on the ground It was a shame I was standing in a puddle and quite ruinous for my pale purple peep toes. Silly me, sandals in Belfast before the end of June.
Being down to earth is a disadvantage when it comes to community arts. I just didn’t get it. Partly this was because the lighting engineers couldn’t keep up with the performers, and so most of the key moments, including those conducted a hundred feet above the the audience, took place in the dark. There were also insufficient audio and lighting cues to tell us where to look in the vast outdoor darkness. The director forgot we could have no idea what might happen next. $1.2m just didn’t buy enough impact to take people’s minds off the wind and the rain. There was a lot of puzzling stuff with the alphabet, carried on and off the stage in random order by goosepimpled children wearing frozen smiles. Perhaps an allusion to Northern Ireland’s literary heritage? Maybe or maybe not.
There were a few genuinely touching moments–oral histories from the last century, I think. The big sister watching over her younger sister the time the Beatles played Belfast. A bride-to-be killed by a city center bomb the day she went to buy her wedding dress. A nod to Northern Ireland’s now burgeoning Polish population. And a lot of talk about linen.
Of course the Titanic loomed large. Performers carrying hoops of light like portholes, and cranes lit like funnels rising and falling on imaginary waves. We were so cold that it was easy to believe we had been hit by an iceberg. People in front of us began to drift away, as lost as Leonardo di Caprio. I guess they knew how that story ended.
After 4o minutes, fireworks, The sky lit up and we all clapped and cheered. “That must be it” we thought and turned our umbrellas towards the exits. Heads down and collars up, we picked our way across the sharp black stone in the driving rain, back towards the bars and cars of the city centre. Behind us, a few small bunches of white balloons floated unremarked into the fine mist above the smoking gantries.
The Contessa and I took sodden steps to the Outside Broadcast van where Spud Hughes had been trying to capture the scale and symbolism of the performance for the Arts Council.
“What did you think?” he asked us
” Have you no James Galway?” I replied.