The story of Lemuel Gulliver, as told by satirist Jonathan Swift in his book Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (also known as Gulliver’s Travels), has been a favorite of mine since childhood. One image that has always stuck with me from the story was the description of how the tiny residents of Lilliput lashed the much-larger Gulliver to the ground, and how Gulliver eventually pulled himself free from these restraints.
I remembered this scene years later when a friend sent me an intriguing video; in it, a curious little girl wakes up, gets dressed, and sets out to see the world around her. However, this “little girl” is actually a giant marionette, and her movements are determined by people pulling her strings from below and above. But, unlike Gulliver, these men and women dressed in crimson livery are not pinning her down, but instead seem to be freeing her, making her appear amazingly lifelike and real.
I later learned that the events I was watching were part of a larger production called The Sultan’s Elephant, which took place at various points around London in early May of 2006. This four-day, large-scale performance was created by Royal de Luxe, a street theater company based in Nantes, France. Seemingly well known everywhere but in North America, Royal de Luxe has been presenting highly creative street theater pieces in France and around the world for 40 years.
Founded in 1979 by current director Jean Luc Courcoult, Didier Gallot-Lavallée, and Véronique Loève, Royal de Luxe staged a series of popular street theater productions in the 1980s, several of which they took on tour to various parts of Europe, Africa, and South America. In 1989, Royal de Luxe moved its operations from southern France to Nantes, a city in western France, and in 1993 embarked on a new phase of its history, when it presented the first of its “giant” pieces.
Featuring a doleful-looking gargantuan figure named Le Géant (the giant), the piece was called Le Géant Tombé du Ciel (“the giant falls from the sky”), and to date has been followed by numerous other giant-related shows including: another version of the first show (Le Géant tombé du Ciel: Dernier Voyage); Retour d’Afrique (“return to Africa”), which introduced the giant’s son, Le Petit Géant (“the little giant”); Les Chasseurs de Girafes (“the giraffe hunters”), again featuring the little giant; The Sultan’s Elephant, which introduced the giant’s daughter, La Petite Géante; and The Hidden Rhinoceros, which debuted in Santiago, Chile, in January 2007. The most recent additions to the giant crew were a giant grandmother, and a giant dog, Xolo, and various productions involving the five giant characters have been mounted in Iceland, Portugal, England, Germany, Mexico, Chile, France, Belgium, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. (This article in the Atlantic features beautiful photos of some of these productions.)
These shows all feature enormous human and animal figures, built primarily by company member François Delarozière, and although rigorously choreographed, give a sense of spontaneity, as the figures move about in their surroundings and interact with bystanders. They all follow a simple story, since according to director Courcoult, it should be one that children can understand. The company reveals few details before a show opens, wanting to surprise its audience and to increase the chance that viewers will just “happen” upon the spectacle. Indeed, Courcoult finds it preferable that viewers don’t see everything that takes place, just participating in the performance as it happens.
Taking it to the Streets
When Royal de Luxe made its debut in the UK with The Sultan’s Elephant, a project that took four years of planning, this randomness was ensured by the diverse settings in which the events of the performance occurred, including Waterloo Place, the St. James’ neighborhood, Trafalgar Square, and Horse Guards Parade. These settings served the purpose of the story, for which the French name of the show provides a helpful outline: La visite du sultan des Indes sur son éléphant à voyager dans le temps, or “Visit from the Sultan of the Indies on his Time-Traveling Elephant.” The sultan of the story is looking for La Petite Géante (the little girl giant), who landed in Waterloo Place in a gigantic space rocket inspired by the works of Jules Verne. In fact, Jean-Luc Courcoult created the show in honor of the centenary of Verne’s death, and it was first performed in Nantes and Amiens, Verne’s places of birth and death respectively.
While I’m sure the elephant in the show was truly impressive—an intricate machine powered by hydraulics and motors, and weighing 42 tons—based on the video I saw, I think I would have found the little girl giant more fascinating. As she moves around doing ordinary things (getting dressed, licking a lollipop, sleeping), all the wires and people around her seem to fall away, and it’s as if you are watching a real giant girl do these things. It tickles me to know that on her sojourn in London she also did not-so-ordinary things, such as “sewing” cars onto the road, and stopping to take a pee out in the open.
In an article for 3 Quarks Daily that was published soon after the London performance, Elatia Harris reflected on the history of Royal de Luxe, and The Sultan’s Elephant in particular, and described the ending of the little girl giant’s time in London:
Then, on the afternoon of the fourth day, a Sunday, it was time to go. At Horseguard’s Parade, Little Girl Giant was helped into her goggles and her Lindbergh-era aviator’s cap, and climbed back into her ornate 19th Century rocket…Little Girl Giant took one more look around London, then the hatch went down and the engines were fired. There came an enormous explosion under the fuselage—the hellfire in broad daylight that is a Royal de Luxe specialty, and a mighty effort at a lift-off into another dimension. Of course, the rocket went nowhere. But when the hatch was opened, Little Girl Giant had gone—hurtling through time without her rocket. So the sultan was launched once again on a fathomless quest, his bearings to be taken in dreams.
A Giant Good-Bye
It’s clear that the minds behind Royal de Luxe want to fire the imaginations of spectators, reminding them of childhood dreams and reveries. In an interview with Jean-Christophe Planche from 2005, Jean Luc Courcoult even remarked on this, responding to how people react emotionally to the shows, saying “I have seen adults crying as the giant leaves…I don’t believe they are crying because he is leaving but because of the loss of their imagination.”
Although spectators might have been saddened by the disappearance of the giant after each performance, they might be sadder still to know that the era of the giants has passed. Courcoult has announced that a performance in Liverpool in October 2018 would be the last outing for the giant characters, and that the company next plans to launch a new show that will involve a silverback gorilla.
As I have fond memories of the image of Gulliver and the Lilliputians from my childhood, so those who were lucky enough to see the giants of Royal de Luxe in their full glory will have incredible memories to look back on. But unlike my childhood reminiscences, those who watched the giants invade cities from Liverpool to Santiago will have memories of fairy tales fully realized, in real life and larger than life.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 11, 2007.