I really don’t know where to put this, so I’m putting it here. My virtual real estate is actually rather focused, and while I wish I could file under: Culture [RIP, ITM], I think we’re fine in my equine neck of the woods. I missed horseriding because of this, so you know it had to be worthwhile.
I had a notion that I would go to Limerick to see Royal de Luxe and their 25-foot-tall puppet, despite not being much of a marionette enthusiast. That wasn’t really the point, I didn’t think, that it was a puppet: it was the spectacle. The spectacle that had begun off the streets earlier in the year, with mass resignations by the top directors of Limerick’s 2014 City of Culture team. The spectacle that had, at its core, the disputation about this very event and the perception of it.
That was January; as it got closer to the time of the event, I started thinking I might like to see this in person. I started thinking, I might like to have a little day trip adventure. With a giant grandmother figuring largely [ha], and as my actual paternal grandmother was from the actual city of Limerick, this seemed like a no-brainer. Never mind that I was still taking it easy on the auld leg, or that if I went on the Friday, I would in all likelihood have to skip my Saturday lesson, it seemed foolish not to go along.
As with all good journeys, this one began in the dark.
I get why people like the very early morning: the peace, the slowly breaking silence, the lack of other people about the place. As for me, this is the time of day that signifies that something special is happening. Not only the extreme specialness of me out and about at 6am, but also again, that the reason has got to be good. Otherwise: no. You can keep your dawn chorus.
Bus to bus to train. We stalled before Templemore, and as I began to get anxious, I also began to realise that I’d entered into the event already. Half of anything in life is anticipation, and within that anticipation, there’s something about control. Stuck on the tracks in Tipperary, there’s no control. Having no notion of how this street theatre thing was going to work: no control. There was a map, but what’s a map mean? It means nothing until you actually enter into it. I have a good grasp of Limerick city centre [it’s eminently manageable] but where would be the best place to see her? Where would be the best place to be?
We pulled into Colbert Station, after having made the connection at Limerick Junction despite the hold up, and I caught a glimpse of her through the train window, and it was — it was crazy. The only reason I knew to look was because I saw a crowd of people looking at something, and I followed their gazes and there: there were all these people staring at this ginormous elderly female figure.
I avoided knocking over children to get out of the station, and turned right, following the music. No one knew where they were going, but we all bore to the right anyway. The lads in the hi-viz vests didn’t know where we were meant to go, but they did know we couldn’t go down the road they were blocking. Some gave up when they saw that barriers had been placed against the kerbs and dutifully went to wait behind them. Feck that, I thought, and kept going.
The music got louder, the street I was on fuller of people, people who had the same look that I expect was on my face: is this…? Can we…? As the crowd became more pronounced, there was less hesitation, and then — and then she turned the corner.
Quite a number of people looked, then turned to leave. I was like — it was the strangest thing. Maybe they had to get to work? It was a school day, after all. I don’t know — they looked, they left; how could one look possibly be sufficient? I looked, and I kept going forward until I was right beside her.
‘Her’ — when in fact it is ‘them’.
It was astonishingly easy to overlook all the exertion and precision that’s required to make Grandmother go: there’s the team flying through the air to move her feet, there’s the ones who are up around her head doing head-y things — I think that her features were operated by remote control. There’s the dude driving the crane, the one with the megaphone calling out the moves, there’s the truck, the band…
One after the other, over and over, a performer grabs the rope, waits, jumps, lands, hands the rope back, re-joins the queue.
Another holds a cable, pulling it, tensing, dropping down to her haunches, then releasing. It was a lengthy, rhythmic movement, it didn’t happen at every step — I know this because that’s where I ended up, walking along beside the crane, alongside the pavement, mostly in the street. There were a few others with me, with the majority of the crowd content to watch it all go by. I kept going, because — because I could? Because it didn’t make sense not to see as much as I was able? It never even occurred to me to stay in one place.
As a result, I ended up on the wrong side of the barrier. Or, the right side of it, as I found myself smack dab in the press section [I am press! As I made up an alibi in my head, I wondered if I had my NUJ card on me.] Once I sat down on the ground, I was nobody’s potential problem, although I did wonder if getting up gracefully was a possibility. I envied Grandmother her squadron of helpers…
[Actually, when L’Equipe started to move again, they moved fast, and we on the ground scrambled up out of fear, some atavistic remnant in our collective hippocampi that said RUN; I reached up to the nearest policeman and without even having to ask, he gave me an arm up.]
So, what happened next, it was story time. This makes good, conceptual sense. There’s a safe that exploded when opened, and then a book was taken out and held up to Grandmother, and she read aloud in some class of an Esperanto dialect — or it may be medieval Nantes French — and Louis Lovett translated.
Did I need a story? I had brought more than enough of my own narrative. I was happy enough to have a sit down, and I expect the flying foot-operators needed a break. I can’t fault the need to give everyone a breather, to allow latecomers to gather, and if they hadn’t begun her journey with an amplified tale, I wouldn’t have had the sound to follow in the first instance.
I do wonder at the need for narrative. In general, I am a lover thereof, and here I am, narrating my experience. Perhaps I didn’t feel the need to be given a narrative because it is my inclination and ability to do so for myself. Don’t know. All I know is, chasing around after that massive marionette was utterly satisfying.
Why? Because it felt like a demonstration of totality, rather than duality. She was larger-than-life, and yet required so many lives to make her go; because she is elderly, and yet curious and also kind of innocent? She is made of who-knows-what, and her conglomeration of bits and pieces move in concert thanks to a collective effort, and yet her totality, her presence, was captivating. She is an entirety. She didn’t have to do anything but be.
Halfway down O’Connell Street, she stopped and started scrabbling at her skirts the way you do when — no. Was she? Yes: Granny had a wee in the middle of the road.
The roar of incredulous hilarity!
I kept moving forward, stopping, taking pictures, moving. I don’t think I’ve taken as many photos of anything, not since I first visited the Cliff of Moher, so there’s something about sheer gobsmacking size that must have something to do with it. There’s also something about being allowed to take photos, which under normal indoor theatrical circumstances, one is not let do. And despite being no stranger to promenade/no-fourth-wall theatre, I didn’t want to protect myself from the action — if I could have leapt from the platform to make her foot go, I would have. That natural boundary between viewer and viewed, for me, disappeared.
I did feel sometimes like I wasn’t looking at her properly, or that I couldn’t look at her properly, in the moment — it was too much at times, to watch her face move so realistically, to feel like I had been ‘seen’ by her. This may be uncanny valley territory, but I felt like she was simply too big for that?
It took about two hours to get from the place she began to the place she was to rest until later in the afternoon — and it was precisely where I began and where my journey was to end, at the train station.
Gramdmother told another story; I wanted to warn newcomers about the explosion of the safe, but didn’t want to ruin their fun [or mine, watching them gasp and jump.] The newly arrived children weren’t sure what they were seeing, and having Grandmother ensconced in her wheelchair was not the same as seeing her walk. Some of the kids were terrified enough without her moving, and tears flowed. The smallest, the toddlery ones, were just like, whatevs — everything looks this big to us.
Then the crowd had to part as L’Equipe strutted away from Grandmother and got on an open top bus that took them somewhere in which they could bask in their collective cool. They were appealingly excellent at their jobs as a group, and yet distinguishable individually. If nothing else, this work is a triumph of balance in more ways than one, not just on the ropes: of the group and the individual, of action and reaction, of movement and stillness, of life and larger-than-life. It satisfies, on an emotional level, the desire for unity consciousness, for everything to fit, for things to be bigger than we are and also relatable and manageable.
The adrenalin left my body is a rush — I could practically feel it pooling at my feet. I had been hopping and bopping and shuffling and dancing for two hours, and my janky tendons were now letting me know it. I had two more hours before Grandmother was due to get up and move again, and then I had to get my train back home. I walked slowly around the barricaded, deserted streets, lit a candle in my gran’s church, had a carvery lunch, peeked into Penneys. The sun was breaking the stones, and I was tired, tired from the early rising, the tension of travelling, the running around, the sheer excitement. I went back to sit on the kerb outside the station, well ahead of time, and just sat and looked at the sleeping giant — looked until she began to move again, until she wheeled past me in her chair, until she made a left turn down a side street, out of sight.