Ipswich: Iron man strides across Ipswich Waterfront to launch Ip-Art festival

Ted Hughes' classic children's story The Iron Man is brought to life

Ted Hughes' classic children's story The Iron Man is brought to life - Credit: Archant

Ted Hughes’ children’s story The Iron Man has long been regarded as an entertaining and insightful morality tale. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to theatre director Amit Sharma about a spectacular outdoor production which will help launch this year’s Ip-Art festival.

The Iron Man strides along Ipswich Waterfront looking for his next meal. Will it be an expensive yacht? A tasty piece of metalwork adorning a well-appointed office? Or something a la carte from one of the restaurants adorning the quayside?

Maybe his presence is something a little more sinister?

While this scenario may appear to be a feverish fantasy, next weekend will confirm that this vision is indeed a reality with the arrival of the eponymous play Iron Man which kicks off this year’s Ip-Art celebrations.

A co-production between Graeae Theatre Company and the New Wolsey, The Iron Man is an open-air production which is designed to attract both adults and children.

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Co-director Amit Sharma describes it as a true family show. Taken from the Ted Hughes story, it has been adapted by writer Paul Sirett who was responsible for Graeae and the New Wolsey’s other hit collaboration Reasons To Be Cheerful.

Amit said: “We first did it a couple of years ago at the Brighton Festival and it was so successful that we decided to bring it back, clonking and clanking and hopefully it will delight audiences in Ipswich.”

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Any rust that has gathered since 2011 is being scrubbed off and the show is being given some extra shine for Ip-Art.

The performance is being re-directed by Amit and by Graeae founder Jenny Sealey. Amit said: “The beauty about bringing a show back is that you can improve on things, tighten up on areas of performance, focus attention on little details that perhaps were missed or not given sufficient time to register last time around.

“Rehearsals will be fun. We’re looking forward to it.”

The outdoor setting means that Amit and Jenny can really go to town with their props and have come up with 16ft puppet who really is an Iron Man – or The Iron Giant as he was re-named in the United States.

“It’s a fantastic object and certainly would be very difficult to fit indoors and would get tangled up in the lights of most theatres – but outside it makes a real statement. You know immediately what the show is about. It really captures the imagination of an audience and makes a real impact.”

The presentation for the outdoors production is not that dissimilar for a show that they would do in a theatre. “It’s staged in a similar way. There’s dialogue and there is some physical acting but there’s not any more than in a normal play. It’s not all mime or anything like that just because it’s outdoors.

“What it does have is the Graeae values of accessibility. Anyone can come and see the show and be involved.”

He said that sign language and audio description were being incorporated into the performances in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. “We are true to what we think makes fantastic theatre.”

He said that the demands of outdoor production were largely tackled during the writing, rehearsal and the pre-production process. “I think with an outdoor production the storytelling has to be a lot clearer and the presentation a lot more refined.

“For example, in terms of presentation, our sets are designed so they are on a variety of different levels so everyone can see. It doesn’t all take place on the ground.”

The actors and the puppeteers will be joined by two live musicians who will supplying added atmosphere and theatricality and boosting the sense of fun that permeates through the show. It’s a show about loss, about understanding, sacrifice and not judging by appearances.

It was famously written by poet laureate Ted Hughes to help his young children come terms with the death of their mother poet Sylvia Plath.

It was presented very much as a modern fairytale with a giant metal man arriving on Earth, from a far distant planet, who then starts eating everything that comes across his path.

Landing in rural England, the descriptions in the book conjure up mental pictures of Hughes’ own native Devon, this mysterious Iron Man consumes dozens of farm buildings and machinery before he is befriended by Hogarth, a small boy who takes the mechanical extraterrestrial to a nearby scrap metal yard to feed.

In exchange The Iron Man promises not to cause any mayhem however across the world in Australia a new alien menace, a space dragon, is threatening humanity and The Iron Man challenges the dragon to a duel. But, not everything is what it seems.

The Iron Man is very much a parable about the inherent dangers of increased mechanisation and man’s propensity for warfare – and also for jumping to dangerous conclusions.

The book was so successful that Hughes wrote a sequel The Iron Woman which addressed environmental issues and the urgent need to tackle pollution.

Amit said that Paul Sirett had produced an adaptation that honoured the original source material and yet provided a show that was undoubtedly a piece of theatre to be enjoyed by people of all ages.

“I think the themes are there to be enjoyed. I think the one over-arching theme that does resonate with a (disability-embracing) company like Graeae is being different, being an outsider. You get that feeling that the mainstream is trying to size you up or work you out.

“The key element of The Iron Man is that he goes into battle with the space dragon and is immediately accepted by humanity. But, The Iron Man hasn’t changed. He has the same identity and personality. He still likes to eat metal but people become accepting of him as they get to know him. That’s something to be valued.”

He said that one of the messages that Graeae try to put across in all their shows is the need for people to be true to themselves.

“So much of life, certainly these days, is all about perception. In the show when the farmers first come up against The Iron Man they have their own pre-conceived ideas about him and these are hard to overcome.

“But, slowly the farmers and then the world is won over and the moral of Hughes’ work is really about allowing yourself to cast aside these damaging preconceptions and not prejudging people.”

Amit said that the success of Reasons To Be Cheerful at the New Wolsey, which was then followed by a national tour which culminated with a performance as part of the Paralympic Opening Ceremony, has meant that the company has been dizzyingly busy over the past 18 months.

“I’m still waiting for my holiday,” he laughs. “I was promised one about a year ago and still haven’t found time to take it.”

He said that one of the joys of working closely with the New Wolsey is that they can take their training and education programme into schools where they respond very enthusiastically and imaginatively to shows like The Iron Man.

“The great thing is that we have developed a programme where we go in and deliver two or three residencies which allow us to develop a relationship with the children, give them the opportunity to design and build their own Iron Man puppets and learn how to animate or manipulate them. We also look at parts of the text and the story and create a drama or a theatre piece from them.

“We find the education work very rewarding because it allows us to talk and interact with young people directly.”

He said that the various elements which form the basis of their education work are also present in the show – which features a cast eight actors.

“This show is very much a spectacle. It’s a big summer showcase, which should have people leaving with a smile of their face.”

The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, adapted by Paul Sirett, and presented by Graeae Theatre Company and the New Wolsey Theatre will be performed as part of Ip-Art on Ipswich Waterfront on June 21 & 22. Admission free. It will have three performances a day. More details on the Ip-Art website www.ip-art.com

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