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Disrupting expectations

10 Jun 2014 | Joe Crossland

When I heard Helen Marriage was a confirmed speaker for Seminar Series 10, I didn’t hesitate to book my place. Helen was the driving force behind bringing the innovative French street theatre company Royal de Luxe and their show The Sultan’s Elephant, to the UK, and I couldn’t wait to hear how someone could even begin to organise something on so grand a scale. This modern fairy tale brought London to a standstill and captured the imagination of all who saw it. It was an absolute privilege to hear Helen speak about this and her other projects, and the transformative power of cultural disruption

Back in 2006 I was living a semi-nomadic life in London, travelling as often as I could back to Glasgow to see my girlfriend on weekends. In early May, I’d read in the paper that an interactive piece of street theatre was going to be performed in London. Unusually, this particular piece of street theatre was going to feature a 40-foot-high mechanical elephant. It turned out that I had no travel plans for this weekend, and so I decided I had nothing to lose by going along and checking it out. It turned out to be one of the most amazing, joyful and life-affirming events I have ever experienced. 

The story behind The Sultan’s Elephant involved a curious time travelling girl and a rich, three-armed Sultan, who, longing for a chance to meet her, builds his own time travelling elephant to follow her through space and time. 

Overnight, a strange object appeared in the capital. A rocket had crash-landed in central London. Smoke billowed out from the crater made in the street. This wasn’t a half-hearted stage set, this was a real hole, in a real street, and therefore by extension, this was a real rocket. The attention to detail was perfect – it had to be, for your disbelief to be suspended and to feel like you were part of the story. 

A giant, wooden girl emerged from the rocket. An army of puppeteers, liveried in red velvet, set to work hauling ropes to articulate her in such a way as to make themselves disappear. All eyes focused on the girl, who could smile, blink, move her arms and legs and go for a stroll around the streets – and even lick a giant ice lolly as she passed through the crowds, who importantly, were not restricted by fences or barriers. We, the audience, were part of the performance, witnessing the girl meeting the Sultan and his giant, walking, water-squirting elephant. 

The timetraveller and her elephant

Thousands of people joined the parade as the girl and the elephant strode through central London. This wasn’t a quaint performance tucked away in a park, out of everyone’s way. This was a bold and conspicuous disruption of the city. Even if you didn’t know about it beforehand, you’d come across it by accident. Piccadilly Circus was devoid of cars and full of people, as we followed the girl, the Sultan and his colossal elephant through the streets to the Mall.

The happiness on people’s faces was infectious. People were interacting in a way I’d not seen before on the streets of the capital; they were laughing and joking at the spectacle. They were enjoying the fact that London that had been brought to a standstill, not by the usual traffic congestion or road works, but by a giant elephant! 

By the final day the BBC estimated a million people joined the final parade down the Mall. A million people who delighted in experiencing the wonder of a giant elephant exploring their city. As the crowds gathered in Horse Guards Parade, the girl climbed into her rocket, waved a farewell, and the elephant heartbreakingly extended its trunk to her, in a final goodbye. The Sultan and his entourage looked on as the rocket was closed up, and, in an explosion of fireworks and ticker tape, the rocket departed. 

It was a fantastical end to a fantastical event. The city had been delightfully disrupted and the story became part of the city’s folklore. All these years later, I still get goose pimples remembering what a playful, whimsical, poignant and downright joyful experience it was. The city was turned into a playground, with the audience fully immersed in a good story. With their disbelief suspended, the feeling of child-like wonder, of awe, was recaptured in a truly exhilarating way. What a feeling it is, paraphrasing Seamus Heaney’s Postscript, to have your heart caught off guard and have it blown open. 

Watch a video of The Sultan’s Elephant performance here

Joe moved back to Glasgow two months later and now lives with his girlfriend and two cats. 

A BBC Radio 4 programme on Royal de Luxe’s innovative brand of street theatre can be listened to here.

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