#PeaceCamp2012 in The Telegraph (London Festival 2012)

19Jul12

London Festival 2012: We shall light them on the beaches – Telegraph.

London 2012 Festival: ‘Peace Camp’, devised by theatre director Deborah Warner.
By Rupert Christiansen
‘Peace Camp’, a vast art work for the London 2012 Festival will bring together new technology, hundreds of luminous tents and Britain’s most ravishing stretches of coastline. Rupert Christiansen can’t wait.

Peace Camp is a work of art which demands a lot of its viewers. Anyone who wishes to see it will need to make a night-time pilgrimage, later this month, not to a gallery or theatre but to one of seven far-flung rural coastal sites around Britain and Northern Ireland. Yet, those who invest the effort will be charged nothing to discover in these magnificent land and seascapes what will surely be remembered as one of the most memorable events of the London 2012 Festival.

Quite what will happen nobody at this stage can confidently anticipate, given the unprecedented complexity of the technology involved and the volatility of the weather, but if all goes to plan, something beautiful will be created – the vision of theatre and opera director Deborah Warner, working in collaboration with Fiona Shaw, Mel Mercier and John Del’Nero.

Over the cliffs, promontories, fields, dunes and beaches at each of these sites, hundreds of small sealed translucent tents (about five-feet high and 10 feet in circumference) will glow between the hours of twilight and dawn with a steadily radiant light, modulating from white to pink to saffron to orange. There are no fixed paths to follow, but as you wander freely through the encampment, you will hear – as if it was hanging in the air – a soundscape of love poetry embedded in a tapestry of words, signals and noises which will play in counterpoint to the ambient roars and whispers of the wind and waves.

On the eve of the Olympics, the tents offer from the sea a beacon of welcome to our shores. On land, Warner’s encampment invites us to contemplate the significance of our coastline, as well as the daily miracle of dawn.

But the tents will have other, more ambiguous resonances as well. The light emanated may seem warm, comforting and soothing, but who is controlling it? You can’t enter the tents, and they refuse to fulfil the basic function of providing shelter. Are they traps, laid by alien forces, or defences, or the property of a besieging army? They can, in other words, seem quite frighteningly inexplicable and sinister.

At each site, the tents will imply something different, according to their relation to the spirit of the place. On the rocks of Godrevy Island in Cornwall, viewed from the shore, they may look like flocks of giant nesting birds, though readers of Virginia Woolf will also be thinking about Godrevy’s symbolic role in To the Lighthouse. Outside Dunstanburgh Castle, once the Northumberland home of John of Gaunt, the tents will seem more military and strategically purposeful, as they will in Cuckmere Haven, where a camp of Canadian soldiers was obliterated by a German bomber in 1940. At Valtos on Lewis, the pearly whiteness of the sand will make for a brighter atmosphere, while at Cemaes Bay in Anglesey the site will interact with the lights of the nuclear power station at nearby Wylfa.

A project of enormous scope and ambition, costing well over £1 million, Peace Camp has been gestating in Deborah Warner’s mind for 25 years, shaped and influenced by all manner of tents, in contexts ranging from emergency refugee accommodation and pop festivals, to the Hajj, igloo-shaped pods used in Arctic expeditions, and of course the political encampments of Occupy and its like.

Finding the coastal sites took months, as Warner and her producer Helen Marriage toured the perimeter of the UK looking for landscapes that were both inspirational and practical. “You can’t just plonk the tents anywhere,” explains Marriage. “They have to sit in relation to something else and mean something.”

What you hear at the encampments should be as entrancing as what you see. Ever since Warner and Fiona Shaw collaborated on an enormously successful staging of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, they have been developing further as yet unrealised projects to perform poetry in tented spaces inside the Roundhouse and the National Theatre.

The soundscape at Peace Camp will be an offshoot of that project, and has been Shaw’s area of special responsibility, working alongside the composer Mel Mercier. Together they have drawn on 570 suggestions and contributions made by the public through a website, weaving together threads of love in all its hues, expressed in all our islands’ languages and dialects. Jonathan Pryce reads John Donne; Eileen Atkins reads “Dover Beach”, but you will also hear private unidentifiable voices and forgotten rhymes, ballads and laments. “Little old ladies in Skye are in the mix,” Shaw tells me. “People I bumped into at railway stations and airports. Coalminers, children, a prostitute.”

The logistics behind the Peace Camp installations are staggeringly intricate, involving more than 200 people and the co-operation of a vast array of charitable bodies, local authorities and other bureaucracies, from the National Trust and English Heritage to environment agencies for bats and moths. Dealing with their nitpicking objections, as well as the construction and management of each site, is Artichoke, the art-in-public-space producers whose past triumphs include The Sultan’s Elephant, the Durham Illuminations and Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth stunt. Their experience is being stretched by the administrative hassle of everything from helicoptering the plant to Godrevy to post-show recycling of the tents and batteries – all requiring meticulous organisation.

Work on the final stage of the project was cruelly set back, however, when Warner fell over in a field at the dead of night and broke her leg in four places on her way home from a visit to the Hay Festival in early June. “It seems a bit ironic in the circumstances,” she comments grimly. Left immobile by her cast, she has been forced to fine-tune from a distance via the internet and telephone, and couldn’t be present when the team spent a week on a farm in coastal Glamorgan dry-running the concept against some appalling weather.

The technology is both simple and sophisticated, but it requires an act of faith in the sound boffins, led by John Del’Nero, who have devised it: as far as anyone knows, no comparable system has ever been used before, and certainly not on this mammoth scale.

There will be no cables or humming generators: it will all seem to happen by natural magic. Each of more than 2,000 tents, custom-made from a waterproof but light-permeable fabric imported from China, is fuelled by a small car battery, off which runs an electric light and an audio system. As head technician Alastair Goolden explains, the latter will be activated from the fringe of each site, where a radio transmitter will send out one signal every 15 minutes, picked up by all the tents simultaneously, over a two-hour loop. On paper, there is no reason why this should not work, but tests cannot entirely guarantee that it will.

Even if there are glitches, one feels that a powerful spiritual message will be communicated: Peace Camp is also a response to the UN’s call for a worldwide trucial laying-down of arms during the Olympics. “We want the encampments to encircle the country with peace and love,” says Deborah Warner. Her passionate conviction and imagination take that idea beyond New Age hippie cliché into the realms of the sublime.

Peace Camp is at Cemaes Bay, Anglesey; White Park Bay, Co Antrim; Mussenden Temple, Co Londonderry; Fort Fiddes, Aberdeenshire; Valtos, Isle of Lewis; Dunstanburgh Castle Northumberland; Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex; and Godrevy Island, Cornwall between twilight and dawn on July 19-22. Admission free. Info: peacecamp2012.com

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