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5 September, 2008

La Machine: Day One

When my mother first implored me to visit Liverpool with her to see 'La Machine', I had no idea what she was talking about, but as soon as I discovered it was a new street theatre project led by François Delarozière, I could barely contain my excitement.

Delarozière was the engineer/director behind 'The Sultan's Elephant', a wonderful event in which a 42-tonne, huge mechanical elephant and little giantess explored central London in 2006 and which I'd watched via the web with considerable envy. Now he and the French company La Machine were bringing another mechanical creature to Liverpool to help celebrate the city's year as European Capital of Culture.

So far as I'm aware, the London event had been totally unannounced, and details of Liverpool's were restricted. Despite scouring the web daily for at least a week beforehand, I only found a summarised itinerary in a 'leaked' press release. Ideally, I'd have liked to have been surprised, but didn't want to miss a moment, so needed to know where to be surprised – a slight dilemma. The nature of the creature was a secret too, building anticipation – would it be a Liver bird? That'd be an improbably unstable shape for a puppet (unless a marionette, I suppose). Maybe a dragon: my own guess, based on the proximity to Wales and mention of fire effects in that press release.

All was revealed at ~05:00 on Wednesday when the first commuters of the day discovered a giant spider clinging high on the wall of Concourse House, a derelict 15-storey building next to Lime Street Station. A later press release claimed that demolition work had disturbed the spider, who had then emerged from the foundations.

I initially thought that the choice of a spider, far less lovable than an elephant or giant child, was slightly disappointing, not to mention surprising – many potential audience members were alienated immediately by the very idea of a spider stalking Liverpool's streets. I also wondered whether this really was it: earlier in the week I'd stumbled across a photo of the spider outside its preparation/rehearsal area in Cammell-Laird shipyard and had thought it looked small enough to be just an ancillary element of the event.
Yet once the 37-tonne arachnid, 'La Princesse', had woken and stretched out to her full height of ~15 m she had a distinct majesty and even charm – she certainly wasn't 'cute', but I'm not ashamed to say I fell for her, and was genuinely sad to see her depart at the end of the weekend. And yes, I rapidly began to think of La Princesse as 'her', not 'it'.

Having travelled to Wales last night, I'd hoped to attend all of the weekend's scheduled events, but there were two problems, compounded by my mother's fragile health. Firstly, the itinerary included huge gaps. For example, La Princesse was due to be woken for the first time at 11:30 this morning, then to sleep again from 13:00 until the scheduled 18:30-21:00 event. It wouldn't be practical to return to Wales in the interlude, so we'd be in Liverpool with little to do for several hours. Not normally a problem – Liverpool has wonderful architecture to photograph, plus excellent museums & art galleries – but the second problem was that the weather was awful: blustery with unusually sustained, extremely heavy rain. If my mother had been soaked at midday, she couldn't have stayed in cold, wet clothes until ~22:00.
Hence, I reluctantly agreed to miss the first part, so spent much of the day watching a Welsh garden maintain full saturation and wondering how clouds can carry so much water.
Even as late as the drive to Hooton station at ~17:00, the whole trip seemed foolhardy, with the intermittently-flooded roads barely visible through a wall of rain – in normal circumstances I wouldn't have left the house. Yet once we were in the city, Liverpool didn't seem quite so wet, and we were only caught in a couple more showers all evening.

La Princesse was in an open area outside the new ACC Liverpool arena near Albert Dock, overlooked by tiers of shallow steps, so though there was a fairly large crowd (for a rainy Friday late afternoon), we didn't struggle to find a good viewpoint. A minor irritation was that a natural channel through the crowd developed right beside me, so people were constantly pushing past whilst we waited. Why does that always happen?
As became usual over the weekend (I suspect the itinerary was deliberately wrong), activities began almost exactly an hour late. First the ~20 musicians arrived and mounted an array of cherrypicker hoists and oversized fork-lift trucks, then the spider's French puppeteers walked through the crowd, imperiously pushing past me. Various people have criticised 'les mecaniques savants' for not treating the weekend as some sort of carnival ("not cracking a smile"). Yet it seemed perfectly obvious to me that they were playing a role, of a team of serious scientists investigating the spider, which only added to the immersive magic of the overall spectacle. The whole experience relied on imagining the steel-and-poplar puppet to be a sentient creature – that wouldn't have worked if the operators were grinning and waving to the crowd.

When La Princesse woke and stood up, it became apparent that like most spiders, her body accounted for a relatively small proportion of her overall apparent size – with her legs unfolded, she was huge. Careful study showed that her legs weren't weight-bearing and she actually moved on a discreet three-wheeled crane, but that wasn't apparent to a casual glance or from a distance, when the low-profile crane was below the height of the crowd. With eight legs (and two pedipalps) in constant motion, operated by nine scientists sitting half-hidden beneath La Princesse (plus three on top, controlling the head, abdomen & water jets), it was easy to accept the illusion that she was genuinely walking and probing her surroundings, reaching over people to touch lampposts and even people's umbrellas.

On waking, La Princesse headed towards the river, around Duke's Dock then back towards The Strand, along the inland side of Salthouse Dock, then to Salthouse Quay (Albert Dock's main entrance) where a huge crane waited to lift her into the water for a bath. I'd been concerned about being able to get good views, as no single viewpoint would have adequately covered the whole route yet shuffling along within a moving crowd would have merely provided a constant middle-distance view of the back of the procession. Either would have been disappointing.
The best compromise was to follow part of La Princesse's route around Duke's Dock then once she'd reached Strand Street, cut across the other side of Salthouse Dock to reach the bathing point before her. That worked well, and I'm pleased with the photographs I took of her striding down Salthouse Quay (and far more pleased with the memories), but I couldn't see much of the bathing itself.

La Princesse had been detached from her wheeled crane in order to be lifted into the Dock (with the operators still in place to manipulate her limbs); the delay whilst she was reattached gave us time to get ahead again and watch her walk along The Strand to the Cunard Building, where she was 'sedated' for the night by a crane-mounted snow machine. An hour late, the first day of activity was over.

Though we'd escaped the weather whilst in Liverpool, it had its revenge on the way back to Hooton and the car: flooding of the Wirral railway line meant that the train terminated at Rock Ferry and we had to await (and wait, and wait...) a replacement bus service – at a very exposed bus stop in driving rain. I wouldn't be wearing the same clothes for the second day of La Princesse's visit to Liverpool, tomorrow.

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