White Gold: Imagination takes flight

White Gold in rehearsal at the Sugar Sheds in Greenock. Picture: John Devlin
White Gold in rehearsal at the Sugar Sheds in Greenock. Picture: John Devlin
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A former sugar shed hosts a death-defying theatrical experience, writes Susan Mansfield

Greenock’s sugar sheds are a vast memorial to the days when 400 ships a year brought sugar here from the Carribbean, and the town had no fewer than 14 refineries. Since the last one closed in 1997, the sheds have been the focus for a variety of regeneration projects, though their chief use at the moment is to winter the elegant yachts from the nearby marina.

Now, this Victorian cathedral of brick and wrought iron is the setting for an ambitious large-scale theatre production, White Gold, part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme. The show, which uses a mixture of professional and community performers, will tell local stories using drama, dance, music and aerial theatre.

“It’s very rare you walk into a space about 70m long and about 40m wide and it just reeks of history,” says Mark Murphy, who conceived the project. A specialist in large-scale event performances, he created of Land of Giants in Belfast in 2012 and has directed City of Culture opening ceremonies in Liverpool and Turku, Finland. “If you wanted to build a set like this, you’d need a budget of about half a million pounds.”

Murphy was introduced to the sheds by Edinburgh-based producers Iron Oxide, who created the opening ceremony for the National Museum of Scotland. They quickly realised the potential for aerial work in the building: not only plenty of space, but wrought iron pipes to climb and girders ideal for rigging. That view is echoed by co-director Simone Jenkinson, of Argentina-based Cuerda Producciones, who was a founder member of the ground-breaking Argentinian show Fuerza Bruta: “This venue is a dream”.

The team were determined that the material for the show would come from the local community, reflecting the history of the sugar sheds, but focusing on the people of Greenock today. “I felt it was really important for the show to feel like it had come out of the ground, that it wasn’t about us parachuting in and saying: ‘This is the concept’,” says Murphy. Stories were “harvested” across the community using questions such as: what is the door you wish you’d never opened? Where do you feel safest in the world? Murphy says: “As soon as we started listening to the recordings of those interviews, I stopped worrying because I knew we had gold dust.”

The project is the culmination of months of community engagement: Edinburgh-based aerial dance company All or Nothing have been offering workshops in the area while DJs and musicians Tigerstyle worked in local schools. Murphy says: “There is an understandable expectation of a community show. We wanted to confound that and make this really amazing professional show that happens to have a lot of volunteer performers in it.”

When I visit, there are pockets of activity all across the vast space. Lighting designer Lizzie Powell is cutting up lengths of cable. Two interns, working with designer Becky Minto, are cutting white fabric into 180 long strips which will be hung to curtain off certain spaces. Someone unloading equipment has brought their car in, as if to handily illustrate just how big the place really is.

A group of performers are rehearsing around a large table. It all looks normal enough until someone passes a hard hat through a hole in the middle, and aerial performer Brigid McCarthy rises out of the table into the air, to recline, upside-down, in a boat suspended above our heads. “The stories have been our springboard,” says Jenkinson. “We have been collecting images more than anything. We obviously want to do the stories justice, but we’re not narrating a story from beginning to end exactly as it’s been told to us, we’re telling a story through metaphors and physical and visual theatre, and within that we’ve got aerial theatre.”

Actor and musician John Kielty, who will be the narrator and guide for the audience, is coming to terms with the fact that some of his lines will be delivered while walking along a beam at roof height. “It’s like being on a tightrope,” he grins, nervously. “You don’t look down. You can’t fall, but your brain doesn’t really see it like that. The thing is to go up a little bit each day and hope the brain gets better at realising that. The next step is to get up there with the guitar.”

Meanwhile, Becky Minto is working at creating a magical transformation of a huge space on a tight budget. “I’ve been driving round all morning looking for catgut,” she grins. “All the fishing shops seem to have closed down. I stopped to ask a guy who was fishing, and he offered me the rest of his roll, but I had to say ‘It’s OK, we need a few hundred metres!’” Time in the scissors-lift is at such a premium that design, lighting and sound are assigned shifts on it through the night.

Early on, Minto hit on the idea of using the natural divisions created by the wrought iron pillars in the building to create eight-metre white cubes – “sugar cubes” – as performance spaces. The audience will promenade through several of these, before sitting down in an open area which reveals the splendour of the building. She says: “There is a sense of combining the past and the present in this show. This building is steeped in history but is also so much part of the future of Greenock.”

Meanwhile, Lizzie Powell is working out how to create a starry sky on the floor, for the upside-down woman in the boat to gaze down at. She says: “You have to start big in your imagination, there’s no point thinking of something small, or saying ‘We probably can’t do that’, you might as well say, ‘We’d like to hang three boats upside-down’.”

For Simone Jenkinson, the aim is always to create the extraordinary. “People throw around terms like theatre-dance or visual theatre or physical theatre. Basically what we create is theatre of images where we want to turn our reality upside-down. So if we want to fly, we can, and if we want to walk up walls, we’re able to. For us, natural theatre is boring. If you’re going to be up on stage and you’re going to create something, you may as well create something fantastical. Why paint a picture of a square when you can paint one of a landscape?”

• White Gold at the Sugar Sheds, Greenock, 4-7 June, tickets from the Beacon Arts Centre, 01475 723723, www.beaconartscentre.co.uk