EVEN the geese were perfect. Two-thirds of the way through the opening night of Kynren, the open-air event at Bishop Auckland which redefines the word “spectacular”, a gaggle of geese ran in formation along the length of the stage. I had to look closely to check that they weren’t animatronic.
I say “stage”. Kynren (the name is based on the Anglo-Saxon word for kindred, cynren) requires several words to be redefined. The stage is roughly the size of five football pitches, stretching either side of a bank of seats that can accommodate 8000 spectators. Being in the audience was a bit like being at a tennis match: you would be looking at one side, and then heads in front of you would turn, alerting you to something happening on the other side.
By now, it should be clear that Kynren is something out of the ordinary, not just as a show but as a phenomenon. The programme lists some of the statistics: more than 1000 volunteers from the town and villages near by, men, women, and children, have put in more than 200,000 hours preparing for the show. Two hundred construction workers got the site ready, planting 2513 trees and laying 63 miles of ducting across the site. The number of props for the show comes to 2459; the number of costumes 2367. And so on.
It is all the vision of Jonathan Ruffer, the multimillionaire investment manager who bought Auckland Castle, the former home of the Bishops of Durham, and its 12 Zurbarán paintings from the Church Commissioners in 2012. Mr Ruffer has dedicated himself to transforming the fortunes of the economically depressed town outside the castle gates.
Kynren came about when the Eleven Arches golf course in the valley below the town became available. It was inspired by the annual Puy du Fou performances in La Vendée, in France.
Evidence of the £31 million that Mr Ruffer has spent on the project is clear before taking one’s seat in the seating block, which looks like something the Saxons might have built. The whole of this end of the valley has been landscaped, creating earth banks, metalled car parks, and a village of wooden huts where none existed before.
The panorama in front of the audience is impressive: a gravel path, a grass sward, a lake, a bank, and, at the top of rise in the distance, the chapel of Auckland Castle. But none of the buildings in the publicity photographs can be seen. These rise hydraulically from the bank or, more excitingly, from beneath the surface of the lake — which is not just a lake, as becomes clear as Joseph of Arimathaea walks across it.
His presence, together with a narrator-bishop, who identifies himself as Hensley Henson, gives an indication of the type of tale being told here. This is a fantastical history of England, told in 21 scenes in under 90 minutes.
The result is impressionistic, and, at times, bewildering, as groups of armed men swirl about the stage: Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Scot. The big set pieces work best: a cast of hundreds enacting a medieval festival, a Georgian bucolic scene, the industrial revolution. Individual actions can seem a bit peremptory: the execution of Charles I, the coronation of William I, the appearance of Pope Gregory the Great, projected on to a fountain spray and voiced, surprisingly, by the present Bishop of London.
But what impresses most is the choreography. People, props, and animals co-ordinate without a hitch and in time to the score, a near miracle, given the size of the stage and the fact that no one here is a professional actor.
The voluntary element is important, and not just to those involved, who have spoken about the new bonds that have been formed in the town. For the spectator, knowing that this is a community effort gives it an authenticity and a joyfulness. And this despite the elements: it was dry on the opening night, but it was cold, and a preview performance had been wet. The cast carry on regardless.
they were as spectacular as the sets: the fire-wielding marauders, the jousting, the solemn processions across the lake, celebrating Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
When the show was conceived, the idea of an “epic tale of England” did not carry such political weight. Its independent, quirky view of the nation’s history suggests that the country has been shaped by a combination of vision, accident, and resilience.
The plan is to make this an annual event. Perhaps a future version will feature a choreographed exit from Europe. Maybe practice at herding geese will be an advantage.
Kynren continues on every Saturday until 17 September, Friday 29 July and 12 August, and Sunday 28 August; times vary. Phone 0333 300 3028. elevenarches.org.