Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday 26 June 2009

Festival frolics

You can't move for festivals and events at the moment. Round our way, as well as all sorts of events in and around Canary Wharf, the Spitalfields Festival has just finished, and we now have the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival. Last night, a group of us went to see Fous de Bassin, which is un spectacle in the French sense, as well as a spectacle in the rather more disapproving English sense. I've just come back from a second visit, this time a bit closer to the action.

In the Millwall graving dock, where one of the first new housing developments in the area gave each resident a mooring pontoon (virtually never used), there were some strange sights. As dusk fell on the main dock, the point of them became clear.

To whimsically tinkly music, a street scene such as you might see in a classic French comedy film unfolded: a car slowed down and stopped, enveloped in steam, the passenger (wearing a striped jacket that from a distance looked like pyjamas) got out and was apparently abandoned by the driver, so opened up a folding chair and sat to read a newspaper, a street cleaner with his wheely-bin came past and offered advice (and incidentally magicked up some lamp-posts as he passed), a pregnant lady sauntered past greeting everybody, and returned surprisingly quickly with an apparently occupied pram. An officious looking person (a postie?) on a bicycle pedalled very fast to go nowhere, blowing a whistle the while; and then an oversized bed appeared. Since, by the way, all this was taking place on the water (everyone floating along presumably with their own hidden electric motor), the bed was being rowed along by its occupant. As you do.

A female figure with an eighteenth-century wig and a huge red ball-gown came slowly into view, perched on top of a paddle wheel, five metres above the water, the wheel being powered by a slave caged within like a hamster. The occupant of the bed having for some reason torn it open and thrown around its feather filling, the surface of the water was now strewn with feathers which took on rainbow colours in the lights.

Then, as the darkness became complete, there was thunder. Flames began to appear, and the music became menacing. Two angel-like creatures zipped around jousting with fiery lances, and the wings of one caught fire (as did the hair of the man reading a newspaper). A Viking-esque longboat with a series of flaming flares along its length appeared, bearing an exuberantly priapic demon-king figure gesticulating among his acolytes, along with a Tinguely-like machine with a series of water-scooping wheels: they swooped around as what looked like a battle developed, and fireworks shot up from the water. As the fireworks reached a climax, the longboats and the angels weaved around each other and all the other participants, who were shouting incomprehensibly; the ball-gown woman writhed in artistically-posed agony on top of her paddle wheel. The street-scene had become a nightmare: the postie was now a sinister-looking clown, the mother now had a child and a creepily military mannequin in tow. As the fireworks reached their climax, the car now re-appeared towing a caravan.

There was music; there was fire; there were fireworks; it was on my doorstep; and it was free.

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