The World Famous Crackers?

[8 February 2007]

By Nick Gunn

Fireworks appeal to my inner delinquent. I find the combination of danger and beauty irresistible, and after New South Wales deemed fireworks illegal, I drove six hours to the next state just to get some. So, when I saw that one of the feature acts in this year’s Sydney Festival involved pyrotechnics, I had to be there.

Pyrotechnic shows are generally artistically barren, and for the most part can be dismissed simply as pretty lights in the sky. The people behind The World Famous Crackers? go out of their way to dispel this reductive notion, instead using the underrated medium to achieve a truly theatrical experience.

The show begins before most people even realize it. As the crowd is herded into the arena at exactly the advertised time, we are greeted with bright yellow warning signs and people in safety gear who yell vaguely cautionary phrases at us through megaphones. Once inside the arena, businesslike men in helmets stalk through the audience, spraying what looks suspiciously like stage smoke. When worried patrons ask what they’re being sprayed with, these men refuse to answer, instead giving a knowing look and marching off into the darkness. Over the PA a woman’s voice informs us of the best way to avoid a bomb blast, and tells us to report any suspicious activity.

By this time the tension is palpable. My companion keeps looking around with fear at the woman who has arrived in a workman’s outfit complete with full-face goggles and giant, safety-red earmuffs. Suddenly the lights go down and trancey music starts. A giant, tubular screen rises from the center of the performance space, and the next five minutes are spent watching a video that serves both as an educational introduction to pyrotechnics and a thematic orientation to the show. 

We see images of fireworks being manufactured while we’re given a practical demonstration. As fireworks are produced and ignited on the screen, crackers are sent up the four towers that surround it. As the crackers are wound tight, the real-life explosions grow louder until they can no longer be contained in this central test area. A strobe light flashes through the smoky aftermath, and helicopter-like sounds let us know we’ve been transported to the middle of a war zone.

The strange red human shapes that surround the arena begin to explode, giving the impression that we’re witnessing a war atrocity; the effect is both startling and powerful. Flamethrowers punctuate and fragrance the night air with jets of fire, while explosions from random directions take the level of tension to new highs.
Then all becomes quiet. A figure appears at the top of the central screen, precariously perched in full safety outfit. She asks us if we are afraid, and spouts a few pertinent quotes about fear from the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Marie Curie. Perhaps the most moving quote comes from the philosophical works of John Farnham.

This diatribe culminates in a strip tease that serves as an obvious metaphor for the dissolution of fear, and, as her pants hit the floor, the arena explodes in a riot of color and sound. Bottle rockets tethered to wires tear back and forth, igniting each other in a frantic chain reaction. Fountains of sparkles are rocked back and forth by an elaborate pulley system, and people covered in sparklers stand on podiums and wave their arms like guardian angels. This builds until the sky is filled with the kind of huge pyrotechnic explosions that are the trademark of any fireworks display, artistic or not.

As a straight-up display of fireworks whiz-bangery, Crackers? is unparalleled. It is equally successful as an exercise in building and releasing tension en masse. As a comment on the world post-War-on-Terror, as well as a plea for tolerance and rationality for the future, Crackers? is a little more obvious, but no less powerful for it. Given the state of the world, perhaps it’s a message that begs to be stated this boldly.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-world-famous-crackers/