Giant v Bear at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Once, the news that a circus had arrived in town was a source of great excitement. A whole community could look forward to becoming immersed in this colourful world; amazement at the death-defying acts and incredible skills would leave them cheering for more. Today, the audience would feel no less in awe of the performances, but circuses are certainly rarer and seen as part of our entertainment heritage. The Giant and The Bear is a refreshing interpretation of a traditional circus. A collaboration between Unlimited Theatre, Layla Rosa and Hide & Seek, this production is neither just circus nor just theatre. Chris Thorpe, founder of Unlimited Theatre, explains:  “We had to be very careful; it was important to consider what a circus needs, what a theatre needs and then fuse these elements together. It was essential to look at how each art form was used to tell a story.”

The audience goes on a journey during the performance, a journey that starts as they arrive at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where The Giant and The Bear is playing. “The audience is met with a welcoming parade and then sat down and told the story of the circus. It is vital that they throw themselves into the experience; adults often forget to make this investment into a performance.” But this is still a very different sort of entertainment. “Rather than simply being absorbed into a theatrical performance, The Giant and The Bear contains elements of interaction which allow the audience to be part of a self-contained world.” Often children will more readily throw themselves into such an activity but this production encourages everyone to participate and engage with the performance.

This interactive approach certainly goes some way to characterise the work of Unlimited Theatre, yet Thorpe explains that the collaboration with Layla Rose and Hide & Seek was essential for this production. There are aspects of The Giant and The Bear which are inspired by the style of Shunt, the company of which Layla Rosa is a founding member. Shunt creates street performances in unusual locations with audience engagement. The show’s aerial and acrobatic performances are typical of a Shunt production and Thorpe adds, “It was in fact Layla who first envisaged the bear, which is a motif often used in Shunt’s work. It became an integral part of this production.”

A visit to Blackpool inspired the idea of creating a circus. “It came out of an opportunity with a different venue, the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, which have a long history of music hall entertainment. The shows in this venue had mass appeal and were often circus based. We were walking around thinking how we could inhabit the whole building, hence the idea of creating games.” On the other side of the country, however, there was more inspiration to be found. “Leeds has a wonderful entertainment heritage. The old commercial bear pit still exists and echoes of things we used to have with animals.” Audiences should expect a very different sort of performing bear, however. “Although he has to operate to certain rules, our bear represents freedom and is very happy,” assures Thorpe.

As part of the London 2012 Festival and Imove, Yorkshire’s Cultural Olympiad programme, the locality of this production is certainly at its heart. But does this national celebration of the arts affect individual theatre companies, such as Unlimited? “If it has allowed work to exist and has a knock-on effect for the future then this cannot be a bad thing. In terms of individual companies, it has brought together productions from all over the world and helped build working relationships between them.” Unlimited itself has a history of producing work using a pool of expertise, described as “cross-platform curiosity”. Thorpe compares this to a “renaissance for the arts”, explaining the company has “worked to develop relationships and trust in different fields”. From working with astronauts, Unlimited has fused science with the arts. Its production The Ethics of Progress, for example, investigated how theatre works as a medium for entertainment. “Instead of performance lecture we have twisted education into a more abstract form and explained quantum phenomena using artistic means of expression.” It is, in essence, about scientific principles and their ethical implications. “We don’t tend to find out about scientific advances, due to economic, political and social control. We like to think that a lot of the stuff we make gives the audience an experience which questions these constraints.” For Thorpe. it’s not about trying to radically change people’s views but to help audiences gently examine the social contract between the people sitting in the room.

As for The Giant and The Bear, there is something exciting about a collaboration between companies that prioritise audience engagement. “The best thing theatre can do is to reassure the audience that they are in safe hands and that it’s alright to be part of the journey,” summarises Thorpe. “We want everyone to step into this world, and leave feeling that they have thoroughly enjoyed the experience.” The Giant and The Bear will not only amaze the entire big top with the flying ballerina and the hanging hoop girl, but also with the companies’ passion and creativity which shines through in footage of their rehearsals. For now, The Giant and The Bear is staying in Leeds, but in true circus tradition, it might not be long before the whole country is rolling up to the most exciting show in town.

The Giant and The Bear plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 8 July. For more information and to book tickets, visit’s-on/2012/the-giant-and-the-bear/.

Image credit: Unlimited Theatre