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WELFARE, FAREWELL!



Beccy Smith
sees Welfare State International’s last ever gig – Longline The Carnival Opera

It’s 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 infectious.

The 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

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