Jean-Luc Courcault: Being invited to Liverpool to tell my story was like a miracle

Laura Davis goes behind the scenes at Sea Odyssey creators Royal de Luxe to meet its eccentric artistic director, Jean-Luc Courcoult

IT’S two days before I am able to pin down the man whose imagination gave birth to a pair of giants with sadness in their eyes but hope in their hearts. Jean-Luc Courcoult is suffering from artist’s block, he tells me, pausing over his lunch of bloody steak and local white wine to dramatically pound his chest.

“At the moment, I must work out the problem with my new show,” he explains, sitting in the canteen at Royal de Luxe’s Nantes workshops.

“But when I am in Liverpool I will be focused on nothing but what I am there to do.”

Courcoult, 56, is famously eccentric. A few weeks after our interview, when the Frenchman arrives in Liverpool dressed in red and pink, with orange, yellow and blue brogues, he interrupts a press conference with an almost completely unrelated rant about the violence of modern- day life.

In Nantes, whenever a TV camera points his way, he cannot resist playing the fool. If it were not for his skill and the efficiency of his team, it seems, his giant spectaculars would remain figments of his imagination.

And yet . . . the morning after his artistic block, it seems the fog has cleared.

Grasping a bottle of water in one hand and a cigarette in the other, here is the focused and enthusiastic man whose creative vision causes his staff to speak of him in near hallowed tones.

“It was like a miracle,” he says of the telephone call inviting the world-famous marionette company to perform in Liverpool.

“I was really delighted because I already had a story.”

Royal de Luxe originally pitched the tale of the Little Girl Giant whose father was lost on board the Titanic for Capital of Culture year. Instead, Liverpool City Council chose to go with the La Princesse spider, created by rival organisation La Machine.

Both companies are based in Nantes and used to work closely together, but after a disagreement between Courcoult and La Machine’s artistic director, François Delarozière, nobody dares to mention the word “spider” within the boundaries of Royal de Duxe’s headquarters. Courcoult’s passion for Liverpool is the reason I have been allowed inside his workshops – until now the media has always been forbidden access.

“I think there is a different kind of popular culture there.

“It stands out from other cities,” he muses.

“I don’t know England that well but in relation to London I find there’s a will within the people in Liverpool. I have the impression that they work together, that they have a strong character.”

Despite his larger-than-life personality, Courcoult was, he reveals, a shy child.

“I was a very lonesome boy and didn’t find it easy to relate to other people, so I threw myself into literature to find a friend,” he says.

The first book he remembers reading was by Jules Verne, who coincidentally was born in Nantes.

“I fell very much in love with his stories,” remembers the Breton-born artistic director. “I read every last word – it was a Bible to me. I read and read and started to dream.”

Courcoult studied theatre at university, but dropped out when he felt restricted by its traditional teaching style. He believed theatre should be accessible for all, to be played outdoors where everyone could enjoy it.

It’s a vision he has realised through Royal de Luxe, taking his street shows to cities across the globe – unlike Verne, who relied on maps and encyclopedias to teach him about faraway lands.

The idea of introducing giants into his productions came when Courcoult created a huge book for a performance about the history of France. Then a man he met on an aeroplane to Rio de Janeiro told him of a Brazilian myth about a giant that sleeps for eternity.

“There are immense mountains behind Rio that look like the stomach and feet of a giant,” he explains.

“It reminded me of a story of giants I had already been thinking about. For a long time I had wanted to tell a story to a whole city and this was a way I could do it.”

He sees the giants as the actors in his shows, travelling the world to tell their stories. The plot is vital to a production’s success, he insists: “Without it, it just becomes a parade.”

It is also the starting point – Courcoult writes a story and asks his technical team to make it come to life. Engineers, inventors and costumiers all come together in Royal de Luxe’s workshops, a place that has plenty to fire the imagination.

Its yard resembles a post-apocalyptic scene, where a smoking brazier fills the air with the choking stench of ashes and hot metal. Next to a picked clean carcass of a metal elephant is the space rocket that contained the Little Girl Giant during Royal de Luxe’s Sultan’s Elephant show in London, in 2006.

A cherrypicker clears space for the huge crates that will carry the giants from France to Liverpool, where Courcoult’s imagination will, after a five-year wait, finally be unleashed.