Dateline 2008. Something is lurking on the drab exterior of a derelict city centre office…something very large and something that has eight legs. It has appeared overnight to startle early morning commuters already battling with high winds and lashing rain. Emerging from the train station below they can only gasp at the sight above their heads and in seconds mobile phones and cameras are clicking, people are talking, local radio and tv reporters are hovering about. On first glance the object appears to be some sort of Victorian era or steam punk machine made of metal with the appearance of a spider; sat on the side of the office block it seems to have no purpose and puzzles onlookers. There had been word of a unique piece of street theatre that would debut a couple of days later- was this part of it or something else? The more people gawp, the more obvious it became that this whatever-it-was is no machine and no abstract creation either but a creature that demands to be brought to life like some fugitive from a Tim Burton movie. It’s huge as well; even semi curled across several floors of the building in a shape that suggests it will crawl down any moment. Hey, didn’t it just move a fraction? Nah, that was the wind. Are you sure….
2008 was the year Liverpool’s became European Capital of Culture, a title celebrated before anyone really knew what it meant. In truth the city leaders only decided to enter the bid as a way of gleaning good publicity for a city that only seemed to make the news when something bad was happening. Even when Liverpool was short listed nobody really thought it would win but it did. The obligatory organisational spats, doom laden predictions of failure and financial woes ensued after the honour was bestowed but once the year got going it proved itself to be rather wonderful. There really was culture of every kind on display- music, art, theatre and even lambbananas yet one event had appeared on the calendar that remained tantalisingly shrouded in mystery. Billed simply as La Machine and advertised enigmatically, it wasn’t until that early damp September morning of the spider’s first appearance straddling the soon to be demolished Concourse Tower that things became clearer. This was to be something different.
In fact, La Machine was the name of the company who made the creature. A French outfit formed in the early 1990s as a collaboration between the artistic and technical disciplines La Machine specialise in ambitious theatrical constructions, permanent installations and productions. Their speciality are enormous creatures and previous triumphs had included gigantic rhino, Giraffes, Gulliver and most famously the Sultan’s Elephant which came to London in 2006. They also have their own show Symphonie Mecanique, a collaboration with the composer Dominique Malan in which classical musicians perform with industrial machines plus an exhibition of unusual machines called Le Grand Repertoire. In 2007, they opened a gallery containing models and designs for their many machines in an old ship building yard next to the River Loire.
The company’s artistic director is Francois Delaroziere who lists his influences as Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, Gustave Eiffel, Antonio Gaudi, surrealism, dadaism but also everyday architecture, bridges, shipyards, railway bridges or my training in fine art. “My father was a cabinet-maker, but he also built houses” he said on the company’s website in 2008, “That’s how I came to brickwork, to plumbing, welding and mechanics. But I think what inspires me most is a study of nature; before I invent, I observe life.” Now in 2008 they were debuting La Princess. It’s easy to list the facts about this enormous arachnid- fifty foot high, weighing 37 tonnes and made from steel and reclaimed poplar. It took a year to construct at a cost of £1.8million and contained fifty hydraulic axes of movement. It’s five days stay in Liverpool involved sixteen cranes, six forklift trucks and eight cherry pickers, sixty- six French personnel, a 250 strong support team and twenty British musicians. To enable it to move twelve engineers sat at retro-futuristic controls like scientists from a scary vision of the future.
Equally all of those facts tell you precisely nothing about it. Indeed, rather than focus on such certainty, La Machine constructed a story for its new pet. That story being that the spider had always been here and that the demolition work on the tower had disturbed it causing it to clamber up the building. Scientists arrive and take it down to a base near the city’s recently opened Echo Arena for a series of tests to see whether it responds to different stimuli. It is able to be sent to sleep by a snow machine. Later, it wakes and starts to walk about the city centre. It even has a bath before eventually returning to the tower. On the Sunday, it disappears into one of the two tunnels underneath the River Mersey and is never seen again, at least not in these parts. Now this is what really shows that this is more than just a spectacle; it is street theatre on an epic scale. La Machine had homed in on an already long scheduled demolition project and incorporated it into the show; in fact as any Liverpool resident will attest it’s the most interesting thing that ever happened to what was an eyesore of an office building that always looked to be in the wrong place.
On day two after a floodlit overnight snooze the spider; who it is now revealed as female and officially named La Princess, is hoisted down to be taken by the scientists and upon arrival at the Arena it wakes up, snaking it’s long metallic legs and being accompanied on its walkabout by atmospheric accompaniment played by musicians perched on cherry pickers. Here the remarkable aspect of this display became apparent. Despite the fact that the creature is sitting on a large vehicle and it’s operators are clearly in view- several in the underbelly and atop – manipulating large levers, and there are firecrackers everywhere, the thing still looks so real. Its legs exactly mimic the erratic movement of a real spider and they can execute with precision; at one point touching the very top of someone’s umbrella. Despite the driving rain and the fact it’s a working day, hundreds turn out to see it waking, lumbering towards the Arena and encountering a barrage of fireworks.
The best way to see it though it when it’s in crawlabout mode, making it’s way around a packed city centre on the Saturday. Water Street aptly heads towards the River Mersey, inclining steeply downwards affording a view of the river when you look down it but on this windy Saturday the attentions of thousands of people are caught when a large tentacle appears around the corner. From this distance and angle there is no sense of machinery, just an exploratory arachnid discovering a new street like some impressive film version of War of the Worlds. The two mph speed it travels allows people to saviour the size and look of La Princess and as it moves past, one of it’s eight legs passes over your heard. Close up, the metal parts and complex wiring are visible as are the inscrutable helmeted operators yet this takes nothing from the majesty of the creature as it seems to walk up the street leaving the crowds in awe. Of course it doesn’t actually walk but you feel that it does. The musicians high up on the cherry pickers play a hypnotic hybrid of classical and modern music that has the unmistakeable air of melancholy shaping something of a character for the spider, perhaps reading her mind and adding to a feeling of other worldliness. Once in a while, water belches from the beast and when it reaches the Town Hall it is festooned in smoke and a triumphal progress though the city centre takes it back to the Tower. The route is lined with young and old, all fascinated by this most unusual sight, all caught up in the large scale drama of the moment. Most will not have taken the trouble to read the story but they are captivated all the same.
You did wonder, in an age when everything is virtual and electronic, how much hold metal, hydraulics and wires could place on people but in this case it is more engaging than any game. After eventually finding her way back up the side of the building where she first emerged, the spider is ready for Sunday’s finale. This time after being hoisted down awkwardly from her perch, La Princess journeys through another more historical part of the city. The juxtaposition of this bizarre creature travelling over cobbles between Victorian buildings, sneaking through trees as night falls and tiny lights lit up the foliage is as effective as any film special effect you’ll see. It evokes another time altogether; the pen of HG Wells himself might have written this.
The final sequence takes place in a large area in front of the entrance to the Queensway Tunnel, the older of the two subterranean Mersey crossings. Here, in a piece of pure theatre, accompanied by ever more dramatic music, the spider attempts to escape and is festooned with water and then flames which play on the water vapour to create an image so clear it might almost be light again. This ending is in the tradition of King Kong but in place of the heroine who sees the giant ape as more than just an animal, it’s the watching tightly packed throng of thousands who become involved. That this much machinery can evoke any kind of story is remarkable but in five short days it has. Moments later La Princess is gone under a veil of snow and spooky red lights. It crawls into the yawning tunnel entrance and a pall of thick white smoke brings down the curtain on this remarkable show. It is quite moving to see an event of such scale suffused with such an emotional core.
There were plenty prepared to be cynical about this entire project, about the cost, about the traffic disruption and even the very idea that such a machine could really be up to much. Yet once people saw it and embraced the idea, it was as if the spider had always been here and few can fail to have been amazed, enthralled and even moved by it’s journey. The way in which the city centre became a giant performance space and the thought that went into every aspect of the staging was a constant surprise. Later giant puppet shows would impress the people of Liverpool but this was our first experience of this sort of event and it holds a special place in our hearts. Even more so now because it was staged at a time before Brexit, before the country seemed to turn its back on Europe for reasons that baffle me to this day. La Machine have continued to blaze a trail across the world with ground breaking productions and hopefully once things get back to normal they will venture out again because for all the workmanship and technology they utilise, there is a beating heart at the centre of everything they do.