History has largely been hijacked by academics,’ says Jonathan Ruffer. ‘You have to buy books that break your foot when you drop them, but actually history is really just a narrative of who we all are, which is what we’re trying to capture with Kynren.’
Jonathan’s speaking just before the gargantuan open air spectacular returns for the second year, promising to be bigger, better and more expansive than before. It’s a project he personally brought into being, a romp through more than 2,000 years of the history of England which enthralled audiences last year. More than 100,000 people visited the nighttime performances over the summer of 2016, while this year’s 17 performances, starting on 1 July and running at weekends until 16 September, can each seat 8,000 people in a grand open air theatre in Bishop Auckland.
The setting is important, believes Jonathan. ‘It’s a visceral collage of everything that’s gone to make up who we are, and the thing that’s so extraordinary about the site is that it’s full of history.’ Audiences who cast their eye away from the action and up towards the hill on the right of the grandstand will see Bishop Auckland chapel, built in the 12th century. Look to the left and they’ll see Novium, one of the great Roman towns, the marshalling centre for sending troops and horses up to the frontier of the Roman Empire at Hadrian’s Wall. In 306 AD the Emperor Constantine took up his role in York, an upgrade from his previous job in charge of defending the British border of Hadrian’s Wall. ‘What that means,’ says Jonathan, ‘is that the guy who converted the world to Christianity was standing, probably within 50 yards, of where the audience is. Thee river would have brought Vikings up it. All these things we’re telling are actually part of that very area. It’s living, breathing history.’
The location of the grand open air stage isn’t the only thing that connects audiences to the area: the people they watch acting out the long sweep of English history are also largely local, volunteering their time to take part in the performances.
Among those 1,500 volunteer members of the cast and crew are Anna Warnecke and Martin Bacon. Anna, who is helping oversee the 34 horses and 80-strong cavalry team, got involved in Kynren simply by her proximity to the location of the performance. A member of the German eventing squad for more than a decade, her parents in law have a yard around 500 metres away through the fields from where Kynren is held. When the Kynren team began producing short teaser films to recruit volunteers, they approached Anna, asking if they could use the horses at the riding school. ‘Somehow it evolved into now, where we’re completely involved.’
Anna’s job was made more difficult by the differing levels of experience the volunteers had on horses. ‘I had riders and horses that were not really ready to do what they had to do,’ she recalls. ‘We spent a lot of time working with them and they all managed really well.’
In the run up to the show, Anna is constantly working with the volunteers – usually at least two per day, three times a week. The horses get a day off each week. Training animals which can take fright at something as quiet as a car revving its engine to participate in a show where 600 different types of pyrotechnics are set off, and hundreds of cast members mill around them in close quarters, can be difficult. ‘It’s totally unnatural for horses,’ says Anna. ‘But the thing is they’re bred to be show horses. They love showing off. They hear the music – especially for the jousting scenes – and they go crazy, loving cantering around the stage.’
That’s a relief for Martin Bacon, Director of NES Pyro, who is in charge of making sure those bangs go off at the right time – and safely. He’s been working in pyrotechnics for a quarter of a century, but has been dabbling with whizzbangs since he was a child. ‘I was always starting fires. Moving into it professionally, it’s a very serious industry. The stuff we handle now is potentially lethal. Every year there are accidents.’
Though Martin has been involved in television productions as well as numerous live fireworks displays, Kynren is something quite different. ‘You’re working on a seven-and-a-half acre stage, and with volunteers. We’re doing it twice a week, every week, so it’s been great for me to be able to finetune things and work on the effects being the very best.’
Martin’s pyrotechnics team has 20 volunteers who have been thoroughly trained; his day starts at 8am when there’s a show on, loading up the more than 400 different positions from which fireworks, flames and other effects are fired. While the show is underway, Martin is in the control room, overseeing a massive bank of information and tweaking the way the effects are fired dependent on the weather. ‘This is totally different to anything else,’ he says, because of the broad range of actors and participants and the way they seamlessly interact with the surroundings – including live-firing pyrotechnics. ‘At Universal, Disney and places like that, they do firework displays, but the people are nowhere near. We’ve got to make sure everyone’s safe and out of the way.’ He also has to contend with the weather – sometimes taking out some fireworks if it’s too windy or rainy.
Jonathan Ruffer’s all too aware of the small stumbles that weather and circumstances can throw up – but it excites him. ‘The thing that is always wonderfully edgy about live performances is that you can never let your guard down,’ he says. It’s something he’s keen to champion, as well as keeping the show volunteer-run and local. ‘If you have a community really throwing their energy and emotion and themselves into a spectacle like this, you end up with something that is much more dramatic and has more emotional intensity than the slickest of slick professionals,’ he explains – something that thousands will soon experience first-hand.
Kynren will play 17 shows in Bishop Auckland from 1 July to 16 September. Tickets and more information can be found at www.elevenarches.org