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Batman: behind the mask

He’s starred in comics, TV shows and conquered the box office. Now, Batman’s spectacular new live stage show is coming to Belfast next year. Edwin McFee met the show’s creators to find out more

Holy arenas, Batman. Fans of the comic book hero are in for a visual treat unlike anything they have seen before when the Caped Crusader swoops into Belfast for a stunning stage show.

The multi-million pound arena tour, which is planned to circle the globe for five years — including a stop at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast — will pay homage to both the original comic adventures and the later money-spinning films.

Batman and his trusty sidekick Robin will again do battle with a slew of villains in a show which will recreate Gotham City through a massive theatre set featuring 45 performers, a 100ft stage and a staggering 130ft-wide video screen

The show will tell the story of how a young Dick Grayson becomes Batman’s trusty sidekick Robin, in a tale of tragedy and triumph that’s aimed at families, superhero fans and everyone in-between.

Opening with a jailbreak at Arkham Asylum’s home for the criminally insane, a cavalcade of villains do battle with the Dark Knight throughout the performance and we also learn about how the Boy Wonder overcame the horror of witnessing the murder of his circus performer parents to become the hero the world knows and loves today.

With fans being treated to famous settings such as Arkham Asylum, Wayne Manor and the Batcave, with a mixture of free runners, trapeze artists, acrobats and actors on hand to flesh out the world of Gotham City live and in person, the show plans on being innovative while also being faithful to the source material.

Among the eye-popping scenes will be a 26ft giant Joker head with performers each “playing” a part of the villain’s face, all soundtracked by a sweeping score which was recorded in Abbey Road studios.

The show will marry the genres of music, theatre and graphic books and will be packed with stunts, illusions, pyrotechnics and video sequences.

Some details of the event, which has been a closely guarded secret, were revealed at the New York headquarters of the hero’s creators, DC Comics, which had been vamped up to look like the entrance to Gotham City for the launch.

“I have to confess something,” says the show’s executive producer Nick Grace.

“This has been a secret for two years and now we’re finally announcing the arena shows, it is a weight off my chest.

“It’s a very exciting day for me, I have to say, and to be given the privilege and the opportunity to create the first-ever live Batman show is overwhelming.

“I’m a Batman fan first and foremost, and when I was a boy I made my own utility belt, I had my own Batcave and my first crush was on Catwoman and to now work with DC Comics on this project is fantastic. I’m living the dream.”

There was a huge feeling of excitement in the air and many of the staff are like kids at Christmas, eager to talk about the groundbreaking, five-year project.

Sitting on the expert panel, ready to answer all questions, were industry giants that included DC’s co-publisher and illustrator Jim Lee and the company’s chief creative officer and writer Geoff Johns, as well as the arena show’s technical manager Jake Berry, who has previously worked with the likes of U2, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones.

“Why now?” repeats Jake, when asked why 2011 is the right time for the world to see a live action Batman show.

“It’s time for the world to see this. We’re striving to make this the best show that has ever been conceived and we’re getting to the point where technology is allowing us to do this in a live environment,” he said.

“I think when we launch the tour officially it will be exciting for Batman fans as it gives them something new to experience that they’ve never seen before,” smiles the so-called “Michael Jackson of comics”, Jim Lee.

“For example, I think the scene with The Joker head is something that you can’t do in comics or animation.

“It plays to the theatricality of the production and when it comes out you think you’re seeing one thing and then it starts moving and you see another. I think that it will be something that will blow people’s minds.”

The hugely influential writer Geoff Johns adds: “Once news spreads of the tour, I think people will be impressed with the quality of the show.

“Especially with the circus stuff and Robin’s origin being played out in front of you.

“It’s going to be very exciting.

“The story for the show is amazing. It’s uplifting, it’s tragic — it’s got everything and for me that’s what Batman represents.”

Nick adds: “This is an original concept. It’s not a musical, it’s a very dramatic story. When you’re in the arena it’ll be like reading a comic. It’s very fast moving and visually exciting.”

As we were led on an exclusive tour of DC Towers, it seems that 71 years on from when he made his first appearance, the Bob Kane-created character still has boundless potential.

However, as much as the show is about Bruce Wayne and his death-defying feats, it is particularly exciting to seeing Batman’s gallery of enemies in the flesh (some of the baddies that are set to feature in the production include The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin, as well).

However, once the opening night curtain goes up, Jim Lee will have his eyes on one character in particular.

“Batman has the best and most diverse rogue’s gallery in any form of literature,” he says. “I was really surprised and impressed with the cast when I first saw it. They’ve included all the main ones and they’re all so visually dynamic.

“Poison Ivy is probably one of my favourites though. I have to say, I’d love to sit in on the casting of her when they come to do that.

“There’s something about that look of red hair beside her green skin”

And while the role of Bruce Wayne has yet to be cast, it’s really the crime fighting character in the cape and cowl that many are interested in seeing, regardless of who gets the job.

“I think the reason why the Batman has always been popular is because he doesn’t have any super powers,” says Jim.

“He’s a regular person like us, but with a billion dollars in the bank and really cool gadgets too.

“To be able to see this character in person is something that will only help all of us relate to him even more. This is a person who can do all these amazing things and now, finally, we get to see it right in front of us.”

Nick continues: “You can’t get a bigger brand than Batman and he deserves to be in a big space. We will give people something spectacular.”

For DC co-publisher Jim, though, this latest incarnation of the Dark Knight represents a childhood dream come true and he confesses that there’s very little difference between grassroots fans and himself.

“What I love about my job is that I get to chart the destinies of these characters and fulfill childhood fantasies,” he says. “At the same time I get to do cool stuff like Batman Live.

“It’s a dream come true and means a lot to me.”

Batman Live: World Arena Tour comes to the Odyssey in Belfast, October 5-8, 2011. Tickets are priced from £22.50-£38 from all Ticketmaster outlets, and will be on sale from this Friday. For more information visit www.batmanlive.com.

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