Beccy Smith sees Welfare State International’s last ever
gig – Longline The Carnival Opera
impossible to write about Longline without reflecting on the body
of work and lives that make up the history of Welfare State International,
whose celebratory climax this show represents.
Presented in a Big Top close to WSI’s Lanternhouse base in
Ulverston, Cumbria (March 2006), Longline The Carnival Opera is
at one and the same time a distillation of thirty-eight year’s
exploration and a completely specific moment in time and context,
speaking directly to and of the community from which it was made
– the culmination of the three-year Longline project connecting
with the people, politics and history of Morecambe Bay.
It’s a big responsibility for one show to carry, a burden
recognised by the show’s artistic director, John Fox –
who co-founded Welfare all those years ago with his partner in life
and art, Sue Gill – in his definition of the three focuses
of the work: to connect with the various communities of Ulverston
and Morecambe Bay and reflect this in a diversity of engaged community
art making; to offer a piece of art with its own internal aesthetic,
poetry and logic; and to enact a rite of passage for the end of
WSI and all of its contributing artists.
Yet it was all there. Artistic output from the community flavoured
and grounded the piece – local adult and children’s
choirs inflated the tent with Tim Fleming’s songs; young people
from tot to teenage performed with homespun carnival fish or in
high-kicking musical theatre style, supplemented by Circomedia’s
young aerialists and acrobats, whose imported skills sat comfortably
within the inclusive aesthetic. Everywhere was present Fox’s
applied vernacular art, material captured through a necessarily
involved research period of three years – images, characters
and stories presenting a distillation of the contemporary communities’
view of the Bay.
The capacious framework in which to hold this diversity of material?
A dialectical exploration of dark and light (the curmudgeonly raven
or the optimistic heron); the fear and escapism of consumerism vs.
the flamboyant invention of imagination; the relentless accumulation
of history vs. the delicate immediacy of the power of ritual. A
Mary Poppins portmanteau of ecology, fantasy, horror and magic.
A superabundance of images, ideas and character which at times felt
overwhelming, but whose sincerity and commitment made its exhilaration
rite of passage element is perhaps the most affecting – the
celebrant troupe is peppered by a host of familiar faces and family
(including WSI founder member Jamie Proud and his daughter; Fox
and Gill’s own two adult children, Dan and Hannah). Many characteristic
features of WSI’s work also take their moments, appearing
like talismans as the performance progresses: tiny detailed maquettes
explode into colourful scenic effusions; inventive objects that
sound and play, processional homespuns and witty transformations.
Of course there are dragons, and the whole is threaded through with
an ardent belief in the power and significance of art and a sincerity
in the global and political concerns the piece explores. And the
mythical aspects of the performance work best when experienced as
ritual. As we are led, half dancing out of the tent and into the
night for the final pyrotechnic celebration there is a palpable
sense of event about the moment, surely inspired by the specificity
of form: we are of WSI at that moment and of the Bay. As an ‘outsider’
it feels a privilege to share in it.
It feels both exciting and apposite that puppetry should be there.
After the show, John proudly talks about ’bringing bunraku
to Ulverston’ with the beautiful carving of Jo Pocock’s
three-foot figures, delicately manipulated by the young puppeteers
on stage. Bunraku’s first local appearance perhaps, but a
significant one. These figures in many ways carry the emotional
heart of the piece – the melancholy ghosts of the bay reappearing
to perform graceful dances as their histories are told through song,
later enacting a mythical redemptive ritual as they are lovingly
sailed by members of the cast out of the tent and into the starry
sky. The gentle touch of the young puppeteers seem to embody a model
for a different sort of interaction – a more nurturing relationship
that the human figures achieve within their tales. There’s
a feeling that the puppets perhaps represent what man has not yet
mastered in his dealings with man.
These most theatrical of moments, poetically showing the literal
objectification of history and of commerce (the tales often expressing
crushing of innocence or ideals by the market forces of the dominant
culture), empowering the beautiful images and characterisation of
the puppetry with a satisfyingly well-thought dramaturgy. Lyn Gardner
wrote of the piece ‘Because it is so specific it has a claim
to the universal’ (The Guardian, 16 March 2006). For me, there
was an abiding sense that the puppetry was an apt vehicle for this
universality – saying something of the relationship of man
to history and art to the modern world.
And then it was over, but as the script would have it: ‘the
journey is both complete and continuing’. Lanternhouse, the
company’s extraordinary ‘creation centre’, will
remain as a node for creative exploration in Ulverston under the
leadership of new creative director Stephen Powell, although without
all of its current guides; Sue Gill will continue her work as director
of ceremonies and convenor of the Rites of Passage training courses.
John Fox will be applying his vision elsewhere, in the immediate
future focusing on his printmaking and performative lectures programme,
but with plenty of other plans up his sleeve.
Longline The Carnival Opera was a beautiful and fitting punctuation
point in this process. Witnessing such a show was a moving and personal
experience, even as only a pseudo-resident of the bay. It’s
the unique vision of WSI which has initiated a generation into the
theatrical magic of ritual, the ritual chemistry of theatre where
puppet is both icon and object, and performer craftsman and shaman.
A just cause for sadness at the end of an era in Ulverston, but
without a doubt a cause for celebration too.
For further information about John Fox and Sue Gill and their future
plans see www.foxandgill.btinternet.com