Imagine taking a fast walk through a vast art gallery with a small child, pausing to quickly explain a few of the more colourful bits to keep their attention, so they don’t start fidgeting. Well, you’d focus on the busier bits, wouldn’t you? That’s Kynren’s approach to British history, writ-large, and… it’s Big.
Kynren is a 90-minute show set in a wide valley just outside the small town of Bishop Auckland, in County Durham. When I say ‘show’, that doesn’t quite give a true picture of its true scale. This was a history pageant of Our Island Story told sometimes from the perspective of the North-East, with a cast of hundreds of local people, horses, sheep, fountains and a barrage of special effects that were genuinely jaw-dropping in execution. A castle and a Norman longboat rose out of the water. Durham cathedral appeared, created in lasers and fountains. Another palace turned up from somewhere, and oh yes, a full-size train too. Things got to the point when a spectacular moon-rise just appeared in the clear night sky, and a few people around me actually wondered whether that was a special effect too. It was that kind of event.
The narrative actually started, for some slightly confused reason, with a child playing football, then the knights of King Arthur sitting around a round table. Perhaps they were about to head off in search for the Holy Grail before being attacked by Monty Python’s giant rabbit. Or maybe I got that slightly mixed-up.
Anyway, we were quickly confronted by the Roman occupation of Britain, Saxons attacking Vikings (or vice-versa), the Norman invasion, the creation of Durham cathedral and the Lindisfarne Gospels, medieval agriculture- and then for some odd reason we moved on to Henry VIII and the Field of the Cloth of Gold, followed by Shakespeare’s plays… and well, you get the idea. Did I say the history was ‘selective’? Oh yes. In this version of Our Story, Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to England. Fact. Shakespeare allegedly met Queen Bess at Auckland Castle. Yes, really. They talked about plays a lot. And Duke William shot Harold through the eye with a crossbow, from his standing point on a Norman ship. But maybe that was getting a bit silly. Personally, I thought that if we were already staging the Battle of Stamford Bridge, then we could possibly have had the Battle of Hastings too, but perhaps that was just one battle too many, when you are staging a ‘spectacular’. But it’s too easy for me to stand on the sidelines and make sniffy comments. This season was the show’s first Summer outing (18 performances), so there were bound to be a few omissions and bugs to iron out later.
Kynren was partly inspired by a French historical theme park (‘Puy de Fou’) that regularly stages similar shows of this ilk- but also by a local landowner (Jonathan Ruffer) wanting to bring a bit of regeneration to his particular bit of Northern England that has seen admittedly hard times. He’s paid out a lot of money (millions) to get things moving, but it couldn’t happen without the full support of a thousand local volunteers who gave their time and enthusiasm towards making the whole thing work. It’s a show with logistics that would probably reduce a serving adjutant-general to tears. Quite apart from the stage direction, choreography and special effects, there’s the whole business of running a ticket-only event in the countryside at a purpose-built stadium, landscaped surroundings and the minor business of safely moving and transporting 8000 spectators in the dark. Think of the organisation that goes into clearing a Premier League football stadium at the end of a match. It’s like that.
As for the show? Well, the ‘history’ did include some rather tenuous links and weird choices of subject matter. There’s practical reasons for this. Getting hundreds of actors changed from one costume into another, necessitates creating a few slow moments when most of them aren’t on stage. But they missed out a few opportunities to make the show even more interesting.
For example, why have Romans marching all over the place, and not get them actively building a section of Hadrian’s Wall? It’s a World Heritage Site on our doorstep (for pity’s sake), and millions come from around the world to see it.
And why include the diplomatic failure of the Field of the Cloth of Gold (in France!), when we could have had the equally spectacular stand-off when Northern nobles took a popular army South to confront Henry VIII with their fury at seeing him plunder the great monasteries like Lindisfarne Abbey? That was a significant rebellion of the Tudor period, worthy of inclusion- and we could still have had Henry VIII.
We could also have included some great 18th century rabble-rousing, like the campaign against the Atlantic Slave Trade (Wilberforce was MP for Hartlepool), or the repeal of the Corn Laws, with lots of revolting masses.
Come the 20th century, we did have the First World War, which quickly became a Durham Miner’s ‘Gala’ (pronounced wrongly in the commentary. Up here, it rhymes with ‘sailor’.) Then we had the Second World War, represented by Churchill’s Big ‘Finest Hour’ speech. Hmmm… We could have seen Jarrow Marchers, dockers producing ships on Wearside or Tyneside, and air raids. Re-enacting VE Day would have been fun too. And after that, we could also have celebrated mass immigration from the Commonwealth from the 1950s, with a bit of ska music or banghra.
But…. it’s easy to moan. I wasn’t the one putting this thing together, and Kynren 2016 was a first draft, an impossibly difficult undertaking, completed incredibly successfully – and its greatest achievement wasn’t in the show itself, but something else.
This is the North-East, an area built on coal and industry that was torn apart in the 1980s, leaving a plethora of scattered towns and villages built around pits and industrial centres that are no longer there. We’ve got widespread unemployment, family breakdowns, addictions and all the other horrors that come when a mass of ordinary people are made poor because the rest of the country and the international money-makers have ‘moved on’ and left them behind. We’re the UK’s equivalent of the USA’s Deep South, with funny accents and quaint customs such as talking to each other in bus queues.
So when we see hundreds of local people standing proud, proclaiming the positive values of their home and region, meeting and greeting offering their sincere welcomes to visitors, and expressing deep thanks for coming to see the productions, then it says something. They’re obviously getting an enormous buzz from being part of something so amazingly Big, so beautifully Bonkers and ‘Ours’.
Kynren. Is it really ‘The Story of Us’? Well, if it wasn’t, then it is, now, and well-worth celebrating.
It’ll be back next Summer. If you haven’t, then go see it.