This is the Herculean task that the unambiguously named Theater Titanick company from Muenster, Germany has set itself. Its wordless, highly physical Titanick is the centrepiece of the Stockton Riverside International Festival, said to be the largest street theatre festival in Britain. It's the sort of show that would make Moses parting the Red Sea on stage look like small beer. In building, sailing and sinking an 80ft replica of the ship, the company performs acrobatic feats rarely seen outside the Olympic gymnastic floor exercises. And drenched by 30,000 litres of water - would they have been permitted such a wanton use of resources in Yorkshire? - the cast ends up wetter than a Europhile Tory.
Uwe Koehler, the company's artistic director, sees the loss of SS Titanic on its maiden voyage on 15 April 1912, in which over 1,500 people died, as a story that contains all human life. Strolling around the set before the show, while burly stagehands splinter firewood with heavy axes, he explains: "When you study what happened in the two hours before the boat sank, it has everything from birth to death. It is the whole of life in a shortened version." It also throws up general questions about the limitations of science. "Like the Hindenburg Zeppelin, Space Shuttle Challenger and Chernobyl," Koehler continues, "the story of the Titanic tells us that man thinks he can rule technology. But in a very simple way, Nature showed that it is the other way round."
Frank Wilson, the festival director, surveys the extensive pre-show check of ropes and welds, and takes up the theme. "The mood changes very quickly. The first half of the show is burlesque. The exaggerated performance style satirises the self-confidence of a generation that relied absolutely on technology. That makes the tragedy when things go horribly wrong all the more striking. It's hubris. This show has made me realise that the Titanic has resonance not just for this country but for the world."
The Titanic has inspired the likes of Lew Grade (Raise the Titanic!) and James Cameron (the director of Terminator is planning a $100m film about the disaster.) "I was fascinated by the huge media interest when another anniversary of the disaster rolled around earlier this year," Wilson reflects. "And it was only the 84th. It's one of those stories that just won't go away. When you think of the century we've had, this continuing fascination is extraordinary. It has been looked on as the defining moment when man's unquestioning faith in progress came to an end. The Titanic signalled the end of a whole period of peace, and a few years later man's technological mastery was turned into weapons of mass destruction."
Mass destruction is, of course, what happens to the Titanic (for all its other merits, there is no surprise about the ending of this show). And a most impressive sight it is, too. Jammed into a narrow concrete strip between the A1305 dual carriageway and HMS Kellington, moored on the River Tees, the show opens with a cavalcade of limping, hunchbacked grotesques who scurry about constructing the bare bones of the ship. As they erect the two-storey bridge topped off with a yellow funnel, the central deck and the prow, they resemble nothing so much as the madmen capering around the asylum in The Marat / Sade. They are slave-driven by a bald-headed captain straight out of Mad Max and a fat plutocrat in a tight white suit and Mephisto-style pancake make-up.
The launch is a paean to pyrotechnical wizardry. The plutocrat's wife roars on stage in a vintage two-seater motor vehicle, scattering ship- builders like Toad on a bad day. She hurls her flowers into the audience and mounts the podium to christen the liner with a lump of ice, to the parps of a French horn. As the ice shatters, fireworks spew from the prow and a labourer scuttles around with a Roman candle erupting from his helmet. For a show about the limitations of technology, it uses it with consummate dexerity.
And then there's the water, leaking from every conceivable orifice in the ship. Combined with the chill drifting in off the Tees, the overall effect is a pretty good imitation of Sturm und Drang theatre. While the ship declines and falls into the sea, the plutocrats dance on deck, quaff champagne and feast on a spit-roasted pig in a manner that would not have disgraced Bacchus. Down below, an engineer futilely tries to staunch the flood with a crutch and two buckets. This may be crude politics - decadent capitalist running dogs oblivious to catastrophe all around them - but it is also highly effective theatre. Koehler reveals that when the company performed in Serbia, "the audience were shocked and in tears because they felt the last 10 minutes of the show were like the war they'd just suffered". As flames lick the hull and scud across the ground like torched squirrels, the band play on in time-honoured fashion.
Wilson is passionate about the benefits shows like this pounds 100,000 spectacular can bring. "What excites me - and I'm sure I speak for the audience too - is that these shows put people back in contact with live performance," he enthuses. "Conventional theatre has lost its power because anything on stage can now be topped by television and, even more, by film. The fascinating thing about outdoor performance is that it isn't traditional theatre in-the-round, it's a visceral experience. You can feel the heat and you can get wet." You certainly can. And at the end, like the performers, you can take satisfaction from having suffered for your art.
n 'Titanick' is at Riverside, Stockton-on-Tees to 4 August. Booking: 01642 611 625Reuse content