FRENCH artist Jean-Luc Courcoult had a vision. It was one of a magical kingdom of monumental creations, of transforming towns and cities the world over into huge theatre spaces.
Since 1979, when Royal de Luxe was founded, Courcoult’s far reaching vision has been borne out around the world, with millions of people delighting in his mechanical marionette street theatre giants, creating a sense of wonder more usually bound to the realm of fiction.
Karl Wallace, former artistic director of Limerick City of Culture and his international programmer Jo Mangan also had a vision; to see spectacular and wildly imaginative pageantry parade through the streets of Limerick, to bring an international event to the city that possessed the ‘wow factor’ that would put City of Culture ‘on the map’.
Royal de Luxe was considered the perfect fit; they performed in 2012 in Liverpool to 800,000 people, generating an estimated €35 million in associated revenue. There is your wow factor.
Crucially, part of the French company’s modus operandi is that it travels to the city chosen as a select venue and creates an original story woven from that place’s history, its people, sights and sounds, the result making for a personal, community event on a massive scale.
After much speculation, no little bit of controversy and an omerta-esque attempt at secrecy, it was finally confirmed this week by City of Culture that Royal de Luxe will bring The Giant’s Journey to the city in September.
The result will be 72 hours of free family entertainment, which it is hoped will be seen by a crowd in excess of 200,000 people.
To put this in some perspective, Royal de Luxe will only perform in Nantes, Liverpool and Limerick this year. It has never performed to less than 400,000 people. More than 18 million spectators have been “moved by the universal sagas of the Giant’s stories”, and now Limerick is being added to the list of cities the company will have graced.
Mike Fitzpatrick, director of City of Culture and appointed after the departures of key figures, including Wallace, before the year started, said this week that it was “essential” to have a show like Royal de Luxe’s in the programme for the year.
“We had to have one event that was of a national and international significance,” he explained.
“A national figure said to me recently, ‘things have settled down now in Limerick, but nationally, we haven’t heard about it’. So in a sense we had to do something to burst the bubble, and that costs money. To get into people’s consciousness, you have to spend money,” he added.
There was some resistance to Wallace’s vision when he first presented to a board that is different in part to the one in charge now. The feeling was that the cost - estimated at around €1.5m - was too much, the logistics too great.
While the resistance to Royal de Luxe did not directly lead to Wallace’s departure, it was, as many board members have publicly stated, a source of friction in a pressure cooker environment. Wallace had always insisted that the bulk of the figure would be spent locally, as has indeed come to pass.
City of Culture have worked hard to see the figure reduced however, working it down closer as it is now at around €1m in total - some €300,000 paid to the company, the rest to be spent locally producing the project, creating employment in turn.
Mr Fitzpatrick declined to directly discuss the figure, stressing that there was a lot of “in-kind sponsorship” being provided by local companies. The project is partnering with local cultural organisations and artists, technical crews and other Irish suppliers, partners such as the Crescent Shopping Centre, STL Logistics, Tourism Ireland, Irish Public Bodies, the French Embassy in Ireland and more.
“There is a big chunk of money that these company’s have to get,” he said of Royal de Luxe.
“But the rest of the money will be spent locally. You will still have loads of people working, and you will look at the amount of money it will deliver to the city. I think it will be a payback.
“The long term view is that it will up the hotel occupancy in Limerick for the next five years.
“We want to produce something that will bring over 200,000 people to Limerick, and also leave that residue, those images afterwards that this is a city that can be a destination city.”
Mr Fitzpatrick is backed in this by Tourism Ireland and Failte Ireland, who had representatives at the launch in the Strand recently, and are very excited by the prospect of the “largest outdoor theatre company in the world” - as Royal de Luxe were referred to by City of Culture vice-chairman Tim O’Connor - coming to Limerick.
“Limerick is ready to do something like this. We didn’t have to do it, we could have just got our way through the year and kept the head below the parapet,” said the former Gathering chairman.
“This is a statement of confidence about Limerick as well, and its own capacity to take on something like this, and to do it and deliver it.
“Fair is fair, this project came from the very first incarnation of people running City of Culture, so they can take great pride as well. Mike, continuing on the good work that was done beforehand, and the team have done a great job taking it on and gradually building the programme, building towards this epicentre in September, when we are going to blow the socks off the country,” added Tim.
The people behind Royal de Luxe have made three site visits to Limerick and are, in the words of the woman tasked with delivering the project for City of Culture, “very excited about coming here”.
“We have been working since September with Royal de Luxe on the feasibility of bringing their amazingly large show to the smallest city that they have ever performed in, which is Limerick,” said Iseult Byrne, project director and a colleague of Jo Mangan’s.
“We have been developing the technical capacities of the show and they have been doing a lot of research on the story for Limerick. It is a custom made story, working a lot with the city archivists and historians, and meeting many musicians, actors and different people who will all be involved in the show.”
Mr Courcoult said that he was delighted that Limerick is to be “one of the chosen stages for this year’s performances”.
“The Giant and storyline that you will experience this September were created using Ireland, and more specifically Limerick, as the inspiration. It will be a very special time when we land on your green isle with our Giant and Lilliputians to perform what may be the biggest street performance Ireland will ever see,” he added.
The nature of the scale of the show means it is going to be a “humdinger of an organisational process”, according to Fitzpatrick. Wires will need to be moved, a careful route planned that may take in the suburbs of the city and discussions had with local businesses in order to minimise disruption. A massive inter-agency planning process is in the works with the key involvement of the local authorities, but Tim O’Connor feels the risk is worth the reward.
“Anything on this scale, in life, in anything, it is easier to do nothing, therefore you won’t make a mistake,” he said.
“But City of Culture was always about ambition for Limerick, about a statement and belief about Limerick’s future. We did want to have something beyond the ordinary, and we didn’t let the year go by without really taking on something very big, that had never been done before in Ireland, and that is Royal de Luxe.”
Iseult, who further prolongs Wallace’s and Mangan’s vision with her continuing involvement in the project, believes it will be “groundbreaking”.
“Logistically it is, has been and will continue to be a lot of hard work,” she said. “But we are working with great supporters, great companies and logistical support in the city.
“We want people from outside Limerick, people from Limerick, we want people from all the communities within Limerick, to really enjoy it.
“It will be groundbreaking for street theatre in Ireland as well as in Limerick. It will be a very enjoyable weekend and it will be something that people will remember for a long time, I believe.”