The Exeter Riddles – Public Art spilling out of the gallery for the public to enjoy.


Photograph by Matt Austin © All rights reserved

Despite the icy weather an audience of over a thousand were awed and astonished by our spectacular FREE outdoor event, The Exeter Riddles Finale, in Belmont Park last Saturday night. For weeks running up to the show, residents of Exeter had been reporting incongruous historical characters turning up in the streets: Romans in John Lewis, Cavemen in the Guildhall Shopping Centre or WW2 land-girls singing for victory, all followed by strange uniformed men from the ‘Ministry Of Historical Defence.’ DSC_0050

These interactions were all part of an imaginative campaign to bring art and performance to the public of Exeter, culminating in a fun and intriguing free event in the park inspired by a specially commissioned story for Animated Exeter by children’s author, Philip Reeve.


Cavemen in the streets in the lead up to the show

In Reeve’s story, the Exeter Heart Stone, an ancient and magical object buried beneath the earth has started to stir, causing the past, present and future to collide with surprising and often dangerous consequences, placing the modern day city on the edge of oblivion. Only water from the well of St Sidwell outside the city wall can repair the time continuum and a boy, Ed Riddle, is given the task of solving the riddle and putting the stone back to rest.

This inspirational story was reinterpreted by interactive performance company, Mischief La Bas, with the help of over 40 local performers and dozens of technical, design and music students from Exeter College and University. ‘The Ministry’ was an invented, secret government department, that sprung into action to stop the time leaks with a HQ in the centre of town and a double bluff website that was set up to look like someone was trying to cover up the story.

Image 9

Collaboration and learning were at the centre of the event which engaged the public on many levels as they became aware of strange things occurring in the streets and the campaign of posters and leaflets enticing them with the slogan “The Ministry of Defence needs YOU!) all over the city.

Ad on bus stop shelter

Ad on bus stop shelter

The local paper, The Express and Echo, colluded with us and ran hoax stories about the history leaks for weeks. This meant that the performance directors, Fin Irwin and Rachel Vowles set up live, costumed interactions every Friday while I followed them with a camera and reported back to the paper every Monday with words from the Ministry. They were stars!

The Express and Echo leak number 1

The Express and Echo leak number 1

However, even with all this publicity visitors still did not know quite what to expect as they entered the park in the dark on Saturday evening. I interviewed a few people during the show –

I felt the vibration first and followed the sounds to the park,” said spectator Alice Prynn, “I noticed people dressed from another time and it was quite spooky being accosted by men in 18th Century militia uniform.  I almost felt like I was going on a ghost train, they created a strange atmosphere, There were booming sounds and big signs warning us that an excavations were in progress.”

Historical characters interacted with the public as the noises of excavation became louder and suddenly a stage lit up and revealed the highlight of the show – the raising of the Exeter heart-stone.  The stone burst into light and streamed with a golden shower of fireworks before becoming a three dimensional screen for a spectacular animated display that depicted time re-winding from the present to the pre-historic past with stunning visual effect.  It finished with St Sidwella calming the stone followed by another round of fabulous fireworks behind the shadows of the trees.

Look at the pictures of the show with this link to Matt Austin’s photographs which include the incredible animations on the heart-stone:

“I loved the whole experience,” said local spectator, John Royal, There was so much to see, loads of kids and it was exciting to go out at night, however cold.  Public art should spill out of galleries, it shouldn’t be contained, this was an enriching experience for everyone.  It was sensational.

It was a wonderful project made possible by the hard work of many. Thank you everyone. And special thanks to Val and Susannah for being so original.

Romans drilling in the streets

Romans drilling in the streets

WWII Land-girls discover that the war is over and it's 2013

WWII Land-girls discover that the war is over and it’s 2013

A minister listens for rumblings in the bus station

A minister listens for rumblings in the bus station – I love the faces of the 2 women on the bus!

The Ministry HQ in the Guildhall Mall

The Ministry HQ in the Guildhall Mall

Perplexed by the twenty-first century
Perplexed by the twenty-first century


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