Sea Odyssey: Giant hopes for Liverpool

Emily Jupp meets the "Lilliputians" who work for theatre company "Royal de Luxe" and gets the reactions from the streets

Something is happening in Liverpool. Radio Merseyside has been broadcasting the sound of snoring in the background of its programme all morning, there is a giant deep-sea diver’s helmet, just visible above the surface of the Mersey, some electricity pylons have moved and there are a lot more French people here than usual.

These subtle changes herald a massive event: the giants are coming. Everyone in the city seems to know about the giants,“I heard the diver is going to shake the mayor's hand” says a fellow train passenger, “Oh those things” sighs my cab driver, “they'll be blocking up the roads”.

“There's supposed to be a giant dog” a woman tells me at the Town Hall, overflowing with excitement, “and he wees on everyone”.

On the whole, Liverpudlians seem very pleased to be the hosts of the country's largest street performance by the French marionette company Royal de Luxe. “ People aren't talking about them like they're puppets. They're talking about them like they're real” says Claire McColgan, Director of Culture at Liverpool City Council, who worked with Royal de Luxe for two years to figure out how to bring the giants to the streets.

It's a massive operation. Aside from the logistical issues like how to turn a 50-foot-tall marrionette around in a busy street there is the problem of mechanically making them move. It requires between 20 and 30 people to operate each giant, plus around 200 volunteers from the local community to act as guides stationed along the roads.

This is the first time the giants have been able to march across a whole city, thanks to a very adaptable local council. When the giant spider arrived in 2008 to celebrate the European Capital of Culture, designed by another French company La Machine, it needed to cross a junction with a giant roundabout blocking it's path. Rather than abort the visit from the arachnid, the council solved the issue by removing the roundabout. Similar issues came up this time and were resolved by subtle alterations to the layout of the city.

At 9.30am on Friday, around 15,000 people are gathered in Stanley Park, where the snoring comes from. A 30-foot-tall giant girl is sleeping with a very large black Mexican dog, named Xolo (pronounced “chollo”) on her lap. A sea of children are chanting, “Wake up! wake up!”, then slowly, almost imperceptibly, her eyes begin to open, she looks around, perplexed by the sight of the strange crowd.

“It was very emotional” says Veronica Reddy, a local, 42, “the atmosphere was electric, you could smell the sea air”.

“You can tell she's one of us” adds Lynne Edwards, 57, smiling, “'cos she's got a scouse brow.”

I tell Gwenaelle Raux, the Executive Director of the company, what people are saying. “It's very funny because in Santiago they said she seems to be from Chile and in Mexico they said she was Mexican. It's a universal language, with the eyes, the heart and the manipulation.”

As the Royal de Luxe operators, who call themselves Lilliputians, help the girl to get showered and dressed to the music of The Liverpool Philharmonic Children's Orchestra, it's true that words aren't needed to tell the story. The girl giant's eyes seem full of expression; she is lost – and looking for someone.

“When she woke up this morning, I felt in the public there was emotion,” says Helene Sarrazin, an actor and director who controls the girl's eyes. She always takes an assistant from the city where the company performs to get a sense of the area and its people. She walks backwards, facing the giant, so she has little contact with the audience, “I don't look at the public, but I feel them,” she says. “I feel with the soul.  I can tell the people of this town are very nice and they are with us. This morning it was very, very...” she clutches her chest, clearly moved. “I think the town likes it.”

Later the 50-foot-tall diver emerges from the sea and walks to the Town Hall, where he greets the Mayor. The audience has swelled to nearly 50,000. The sensitivity of the Lilliputians, along with their physical energy, as they haul the pullies that operate the giants' wooden limbs, seem to breathe life into these ethereal creatures.  Sarrazin even speaks as though she is merely a conduit for the girl giant's feelings: “She is very, very expressive, even if I do nothing.  I am very transparent...I have to think about what her desires are. I have to be very open and just reactive, not active.” I begin to suspect the giants might have souls.

Sea Odyssey runs from Friday 20 April to Sunday 22 April