Theatre Review – Wall of Death: A Way of Life

Feb 24 2010 | By More

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Ken Fox on the wall of death. Photograph by Peter Dibdin

Royal Highland Centre

By Thom Dibdin

Thrilling and theatrical, the National Theatre of Scotland’s latest piece of sight-specific theatre arrives at the Royal Highland Centre with the piece’s originator, Stephen Skrynka, finally succeeding in riding his motorbike up onto the lipped edge of the wooden wall of death.

Skrynka has achieved his lifelong ambition of riding up onto the vertical wall itself during private training with Ken Fox, owner of the wall of death side-show that lies at the heart of the production. In public, however, he is only prepared to ride up onto the 45 degree angled boards below the wall.

It is Skrynka’s rising to the challenge which makes Wall of Death: A Way of Life the event it is. On the opening night in Glasgow, a fortnight ago, Skrynka didn’t even get on the motorbike to take it round the floor of the side-show, let alone up the wall at all.

It was a failure which diminished the experience for the audience. Those looking for a reason to call it “theatre” – other than it being named as such and being staging by the NTS – were dissatisfied. Which lead to heated debate about whether the experience amounted to theatre at all.

As soon as Skrynka gets on the bike for the finale, however, all such debates seem to be negated.

Yes, this is still part art installation. Before the performance a series of Skrynka’s  wall-of-death-related zoetropes is on display in a fairground-style stall. Projections of Skrynka’s attempts to learn to ride the wall are shown as the audience wait for a short Q&A session with the Fox family, which puts the wall itself in historical context.

Stephen Skrynka finally begins to mount the wall. Photograph by Thom Dibdin

And yes, the 15 or so minutes of the side-show itself is not a play. While the exploits certainly thrill, it is the body-language and backchat of the Q&A session which is most intriguing. Here, as much as could be caught or evoked on any other stage, is a glimpse of a way of life.

But after the members of the Ken Fox troupe – Fox himself, his two sons and his daughter in law – have performed on the wall; after you have witnessed the roar of tyres across the wooden wall; after you have smelt the fumes coming off the bikes; after you have pulled back as the riders come to within inches of where you stand at the top of the wall; after all this, Skrynka’s slow, teetering journey around the ring suddenly gives a real gravity to what had previously seemed effortless.
Run continues to Sunday 28 February

Wall of Death: A Way of Life on the National Theatre website.
Ticket booking information

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