Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s breathtaking construction that towers high over the Avon Gorge is a thing of arresting visual beauty and immense audacity.
Fitting, then, that when it came to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, a team of Bristol creatives – writer, director, theatre company, circus school – set out to tell its story with more of that same audacity and visual élan.
The result is Walking the Chains, a circus-theatre salute to Brunel’s extraordinary design which will be performed next month at a fitting location, Brunel’s Old Station.
The text of the piece has been written by Bristol playwright ACH Smith, who has form with this sort of big, brilliant Bristol spectacle.
Smith was the creator of 2000’s legendary Bristol Old Vic show Up The Feeder Down The Mouth, a story of the rise and fall of Bristol docks, staged on the harbor and featuring a moment of dazzling theatricality when the doors of the venue – the old Industrial Museum – opened to reveal a freight ship coming docking and unloading.
Like its illustrious Bristol predecessor, Walking the Chains combines history, legend and latter-day anecdotes to tell the long and lively story of the bridge, from concept through construction to its maintenance and place in contemporary Bristol life.
Inspired by the risk and dedication of the bridge’s original designers and builders, the show mixes theatre, circus and music – and draws on the stories of Bristolians past and present.
A professional company of actor, singers, musicians and circus performers has been assembled in association with Bristol’s Show of Strength theatre company and Circomedia, Bristol’s world-renowned centre for contemporary circus and physical theatre.
The show’s being directed by Bristol Uni drama graduate Robin Belfield, who last worked with Show of Strength on its acclaimed Trade It?, and who has also worked for the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
“It all began with a lot of homework,” Smith recalls. “I got myself acquainted with the history of the bridge, which starts long before 1864.”
Smith’s research included interviews with bridge maintenance staff and others whose lives have been touched by the great structure. The text duly composed, Smith and Show of Strength started work with Circomedia, exploring which parts of the bridge story could be illustrated using circus turns.
“The piece is shaped around two intertwining narratives,” Smith explains. “One is the 111-year story from the first proposal of a bridge to its opening in 1864, five years after Brunel died.
“The other strand is centred on two stories since the bridge has been in operation – one Victorian, the other modern.
“But the action doesn’t run chronologically. We switch from, say, 1829 to 1986 when the subject matter calls for it. From maintenance crew to proposals of marriage, all the stories are of people whose lives have been touched by the bridge.”
And what do you hope to send audiences away thinking and feeling? “Pride in Bristol. There’s a line in the opening song, ‘Do you know a finer gateway into a great city’s heart?’.
“But there’s also Bristolian humour, and admiration for Brunel and for the workers who built the thing and maintain it to this day.”
Walking the Chains is at Brunel’s Old Station from January 13 to January 25. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/walking-chains.