Spectacular is not the word—or rather it has to be, because there’s no other word that comes near to describing the Kynren project. Amazing? Dazzling? Breathtaking…?
Insane—? For who in their right mind would think of setting up a series of Hollywood-scale night-time shows, out of doors, in a depressed town in north east England?
Is it entirely a coincidence that the French show on which the idea of Kynren is based takes place in a village called Puy du Fou, which might be loosely translated as ‘height of folly’?
Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of it, as you descend the winding half-hour path from the car park through trees, between banks of wild flowers, to the site beside the river Wear below Auckland Castle, once home of the Bishops of Durham. If like me, you can recall what it was like before—an undistinguished stretch of flood-prone land—the transformation is breathtaking. Passing what looked like a shiny new series of barrack blocks, and realising that was just the housing for the show’s 34 horses, prepared one a little for what was to come: a ‘stage’, itself the size of five football pitches, an 8000-seater ‘Tribune’ of remarkably comfortable seating (filled to capacity the night we went), more than enough spotlessly clean toilet blocks to avoid long queues, good lighting, and landscaping turning the flat land (aptly once Flatts Farm) into a place of wooded hills. And then there was the accommodation for the cast members…
For it’s the cast that makes it. In a Hollywood film, they’d talk of over 1000 extras. But these people aren’t extras, they’re an intrinsic and essential part of the whole enterprise. All volunteers, they must have given every moment of their spare time for months past to preparing for the show. From the car park attendants guiding the less able to the shuttle buses and keeping the traffic flowing, the welcoming helpers at every bend of the path, the ticket inspection team and the friendly, low-key bag-checkers, to the dancers, riders, fighters, banner wavers of all ages, these smiling volunteers from the local community are what gives heart to the show.
They’ve been trained by professionals, in a fine example of Anglo-French cooperation (I pray Brexit doesn’t threaten their future…). Everything works without a hitch, every human and animal does his or her utmost to make the show work.
It’s like a film come to life, with lighting and music, moving scenery, fountains, fireworks, galloping horses and dancing children, waving banners, dramatic effects to move the watchers to tears or laughter or gasps of wonder.
Wary, a little cynical, we booked our tickets at the last minute, with no very high expectation. Fully kitted out in layers of wet-weather gear (the seats, like the stage, are open to the skies), we explored the site, ate ice creams, sampled the loos and then took our places, with anxious eyes on the threatening clouds, getting impatient as the show began a fraction late. Then it started…
We were bowled over. All right, it’s not a highly sophisticated show and there’s a good bit of poetic licence with the historical facts, but it doesn’t matter in the least. Even if you’ve no idea at all what’s going on, it’s a feast for the eyes and ears and heart. Now we want to go again, booking ahead next time to make sure we have the very best seats. And we’ll urge our family to come up from London to see it too. Not till next year sadly, as time’s running out for this year. But it’s planned that the show will run and run, as has its French model, spreading out into the local community to revive and inspire it so that it’s no longer a place of closed shops and lost hopes.
One millionaire philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, is behind it all. But thousands of other people have been inspired to share in the dream and bring it to reality.