JOYCE MCMILLAN on WALL OF DEATH – A WAY OF LIFE at the SECC, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 6.2.10
4 stars ****
IT’S A SHOW IN four parts, the National Theatre of Scotland’s amazing Wall Of Death at the SECC. Co-produced with the Ken Fox troupe, the last family group of wall of death riders in the UK, and created through the inspiration of artist Stephen Skrynka – who has longed to ride the Wall Of Death since childhood – it’s a one-hour entertainment that exists right out in the borderlands where theatre and showmanship meet installation art.
It begins with a fairground booth, created by Skrynka, that explores the idea of rotation through dozens of tiny images held on the turntables of old wind-up gramophones. it leads us towards the Wall Of Death through a circle of filmed images of Skrynka beginning to learn the art of riding, and Ken Fox talking about it. Then there’s a roar of thrilling sound flashing through the space, a theatrical flood of light from the side of a fairground truck, a chance to meet the four-strong troupe and their “spieler”, the ebullient Neil; and to hear their modest, sometimes intriguing answers to frequently asked questions about their art.
And then its up into the Wall Of Death itself, for fifteen minutes of brilliant, searing showmanship from Fox and his riders, Alex, Luke and the wonderful Kerri. Their poise, their calm, their perfect athleticism, as they drive their roaring bikes to the top of the wall, soaring and swooping like dancers or acrobats, draws gasps of pure excitement from the audience, gathered in a circle around the top of the great drum. Has Skrynka mastered the art of riding the Wall? No, he hasn’t; he says that the learning process goes on.
But at the end of the evening, we have plenty to celebrate and to think about, nonetheless. There’s the sheer skill of the performance, which simply commands respect and delight. But beyond that, there’s a subtle, thoughtful tribute to a travelling, risk-taking way of life that has ancient roots, and is under constant threat in our crowded and sanitised modern world. And there’s a rich combination of beauty, and sadness, and sheer, hair-raising fun. The show’s co-director, the NTS’s Vicky Featherstone, says that theatre has to be constantly re-defining itself, if it wants to stay in touch with audiences in the 21st century; and with this show, she gives a powerful demonstration of just how vibrant, and how thrilling, that process of exploration can be.