This summer thousands have been flocking to a scenic corner of north east England to experience Kynren – an Epic tale of England. But this show’s mission is about more than simply spellbinding audiences; it’s also an exercise in rural regeneration, writes Owen Ralph.
Kynren and 2000 years of History
Puy du Fou, France’s famous Thea Award winning live entertainment theme park, gets approached about collaborations all the time, but until Kynren it hasn’t worked on a night spectacular with anyone else.
Kynren brings to life 2, 000 years of English history on a spectacular scale. Around £35 million ($47m/€42m) has been invested in the show and accompanying its infrastructure, transforming a natural bowl and former golf course in the shadow of Auckland Caste, County Durham, into a 30, 350 square-metre (7.5-acre) stage.
The 90-minute production, performed after dark on weekends and bank holidays, tells the story of Arthur, the son of a local mining family, who – as a 10-year-old boy dreaming of becoming a professional footballer – accidentaly kicks his ball through the window of a hunting lodge in the grounds of the castle. He encounters Bishop Hensley Henson, who urges him to think beyond football alone and offers to take him on a journey through British history, to open his eyes to the greatness of his land.
Illuminated to Dramatic Effect
During his odyssey, young Arthur encounters the Viking and Norman invasions, St Cuthbert and Lindisfarne monks, medieval feasts, the Elizabethan era, Georgian Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and the Roaring Twenties. He meets the pivotal figures who have shaped religion, culture and invention, the kings, queens and prince bishops who have ruled, the armies that have invaded, all contributing to England’s colourful cultural tapestry. The religious content is central to the history of the North East, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to the establishment of the cathedral of Durham.
The show’s name is adapted from the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘Cynren’, which translates as ‘family’ or ‘generation’ (the words ‘kindred’ or ‘next-of-kin’ have the same root). Performed each night to an audience of up to 8, 000, with no interval and a varying start time to take account of seasonal light conditions, the show is illuminated to dramatic effect. Lighting, pyrotechnics and fountains animate the lake that forms a large part of the stage, while an original musical score is experienced in movie-like surround sound.
This is No Pantomime
“The narrative takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster mixing joy and sadness, ” explains Annabel Tremaine, director of marketing at Eleven Arches, the charity to set up to produce Kynren and guide its wider mission within the town of Bishop Auckland. “As a British production, humour is important as well.”
Light hearted-moments include an encounter between Elizabeth I, Shakespeare and some of the bard’s own characters, and there’s also an in-joke about football, but this is no pantomime. Much as UK audiences like a laugh, the scale and staging of the show does not allow for large doses of humour, nor are they necessary.
In common with Cinéscénie – Puy du Fou’s signature night show – Kynren is performed by a large cast, in this case 600 volunteers, 36 horses, 26 sheep, two goats, two cows, 20 ducks and five geese. The animals aren’t paid either but, we are assured, they are kept comfortable and in their own ‘dressing rooms’ before they appear in the St Cuthbert and Georgian Renaissance scenes.
Not Cast Members but “Archers”
It is this critical mass of performers that makes some of the set pieces during Kynren’s 23 acts so impressive, but there’s some neat special effects too. The first of these is the replica Auckland Castle that rises from behind the lake (the real thing is a little too far beyond the arena to be incorporated directly into the show) and then remains as a backdrop throughout. Later a viking long boat emerges from the water, with performers (also trained as divers) already on board.
“We are lucky to have a talented hydraulics team who have many secrets under the water!” notes Tremaine. Whilst Disney makes a point of calling its staff “cast members, ” all of the cast members in Kynren, and the rest of the 1, 000+ strong volunteer team at Eleven Arches, have been tagged “Archers”. Together they contributed close to 200, 000 hours of their spare time to be trained in a diverse range of skills, from backstage and technical operations to costumes, props, visitor experience and animal husbandry. Clearly Kynren would not be viable if all them were paid a wage.
Launched at the start of July, just one week after the UK voted narrowly to leave the European Union, the show marks a collaborative effort between performance experts from England and France, including some of the team behind Cinéscénie, and also those that delivered the mass choreography at the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Indeed, Kynren is being billed by its promoter as the UK’s largest live entertainment spectacular since that same Olympic ceremony. Whatever the fete of the Great Britain after ‘Brexit’ it appears these two parties, and all of the volunteers, are in it for the long haul.
Puy du Fou – Artistic Partner and a Source of Inspiration
“Like our artistic partner and source of inspiration – Puy du Fou – we are planning to be here for decades to come, ” confirms Tremaine. “Kynren exists for the benefit of the North East, and the regeneration of the local area. The profits of the show will flow back to the charity to reinvest in the show and keep it at its best.”
The aim, she continues, is to create “a show wholly ‘owned’, supported and celebrated by its host community. We have created the Eleven Arches Academy to professionally train all our volunteers and are hoping to make County Durham an all-rounded national centre of excellence for performing arts. The volunteers are the heroes of the whole production as they bring the enthusiasm, commitment, spirit and life to the show.”
In true British spirit, “the show must go on”, regardless of the elements and, at the time of writing, now shows has been postponed or stopped because of the weather. “The nature of an open-air production in the UK means that all audiences are prepared for any weather come rain or shine and so are all elements of our production!” says Tremaine.
Kynren and Bravado
The enthusiasm of the guest-facing volunteers on what was a thankfully dry press preview night attended by this writer was demonstrable, as you’d expect on such an evening, but it also came across as genuine. The North East of England is renowned for its hospitality and this, almost as much as the performance itself, could be one of Elevens Arches’ best assets in creating a memorable, enjoyable experience for audiences, who are asked arrive at the site well in advance of each show. This is in part to reduce local traffic congestion and keep the neighbours on side (those who are not volunteering in that’s night’s show, that is).
And so far audience members they have been arriving not just from England, Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, but also China, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. Not bad considering Bishop Auckland is a considerable distance from London and what may be considered the traditional foreign tourist trail. It is though a little closer to Edinburgh and the Lake District; not forgetting the North East’s own attractions.
There is, however, an element of “build and they will come” in the bravado shown by the team from Eleven Arches, which takes its name from the Victorian viaduct that sits close to the show site, itself a majestic reminder that the world’s first passenger railway started just 20 miles (32km) away. The castle and its park, meanwhile, are at the centre of a wider sacred Christian landscape which it is thought might be as much as 1, 500 years old.
Forming Eleven Arches
Yet the UK is not short of historical sites, so why Auckland Castle in particular? It’s down largely to efforts of one man: philanthropist, investment manager and art collector Jonathan Ruffer, who ended up at the the helm of Grade-I listed building in 2011 after acquiring its collection of Zurbarán paintings. He then set about placing the castle at the centre of the regeneration of Bishop Auckland, County Durham and the North East region, which has suffered more than most from the decline of its traditional industries.
“I come from this part of the world, ” he told The Guardian recently, adding, “I don’t talk very easily about my faith, but I’m pretty God-y and what I’m doing here is because I feel a call to do it. One of the things I find nonplussing is people who ask me about my vision. I haven’t really got one. I’ve been called on a journey, like Abraham was.”
In December 2012, Ruffer appointed French-born former investment banker and interior designer Anne-Isabelle Daulon to assess options for the land that has been assigned to the Auckland Castle Trust, with a view to heading up the development company if feasibility studies were successful. Eleven Arches was formed in 2013.
Puy du Fou’s Volunteer Model
A meeting was arranged with Puy du Fou in March of that year. On the face of it, the somewhat eccentric Ruffer might appear to have little in common with the rather suave Nicolas de Villiers, nevertheless we are told it was meeting of mind and soul, and three months later a full delegation from France arrived at Auckland Castle, including Nicolas’ father and Puy du Fou founder, Philippe de Villiers.
“I knew that someone with so much enthusiasm for the local area like Jonathan would make Kynren a success, ” says Nicolas de Villiers, who serves of artistic director of all Puy du Fou’s shows, including now Kynren too.
The park’s owners receive about 50 annual requests to partner on projects around world. A few years ago they founded Puy Do Fou International in order to field such requests, establishing relationships with partners in China, Russia and at Efteling in the Netherlands, with which they co-produced the arena show Raveleijn in 2011. Yet Kynren (the Russian and Chinese projects have yet to come to fruition) is the first fully-blown project outside France which draws entirely on the Cinéscénie concept, and also the first to adopt Puy du Fou’s volunteer model.
All of the £35 million spent so far has been funded through donations from trusts and private individuals (including Jonathan Ruffer). Meanwhile the Auckland Castle Trust is spending £60 million, including £9 million of lottery funding, to rejuvenate the local landmark and turn it into a national tourist destination that it hopes will attract upwards of 200, 000 visitors a year. With the castle and Kynren, several hours of recreation already await, but Puy du Fou is now working with Eleven Arches to develop additional options for the site. “This is certainly only the beginning!” says Tremaine.
Kynren’s inaugural season came to a close on Saturday, September 17. Volunteer recruitment will start soon for 2017.
KEY KYNREN FACTS
Kynren was performed on 14 selected nights (excluding press previews) between July 2 and September 17
Tickets for each performance were priced from £25 to £55 ($33-73/€30-65) for adults and £19 to £41 ($25-55/€23-49) for children aged 12 and under
With a spectator capacity per performance of 8, 000, the show had potential to entertain 112, 000 audience members across the season
Some performances were close to selling out, others not, although ticket sales in general were described as “healthy”
The show’s original musical score was composed by Swiss-born Nathan Stornetta, who studied at the Royal College of Music in London
As well as its 1, 000+ volunteers, Kynren is expected to create the equivalent of 232 full time jobs at local and 287 at regional level
The projected off-site expenditure in Country Durham from visitors to Kynren is £4.75 million ($6.3m/€5.7m) a year