A giant moving puppet that has traversed Europe over four months on stilts reached UK shores on Tuesday in the final leg of an 8,000-kilometre journey.
Little Amal, the 3.5-metre marionette representing a Syrian refugee girl aged 9, began her voyage in Gaziantep along the Syrian-Turkish border and carried on through Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and France.
British actor Jude Law was on hand to greet the giant puppet in Folkestone, Kent, where she arrived from Calais, a route commonly taken by people seeking refuge in the UK.
The Bafta award-winner is one of a host of high-profile ambassadors of the The Walk, which he has previously called an "inspired idea" that he hopes will bring "much-needed attention to the lives of so many people young and old that seek refuge.”
Created by Good Chance Theatre, The Walk is Little Amal’s expedition to Manchester in search of her mother, “shining a light on the millions of displaced refugee children she represents”, say the organisers.
“The attention of the world is elsewhere right now, which makes it more important than ever to reignite the conversation about the refugee crisis and to change the narrative around it. Yes, refugees need food and blankets, but they also need dignity and a voice,” says Amir Nizar Zuabi, the project’s artistic director. He says Little Amal’s colossal size is meant to inspire people to “think big and act bigger”.
According to the data provided by the United Nations child rights agency Unicef, children make up less than a third of the global population, but nearly half of the world’s refugees.
More than 33 million children had been forcibly displaced by the end of 2020, including about 13 million child refugees and about one million asylum-seeking children. An estimated 3.7 million child refugees live in camps or collective centres.
Like the many thousands of people who have made perilous cross-Channel journeys to seek refuge in the UK this year, Little Amal will take her first steps in England on the beaches of Folkestone before making her way to the capital.
An array of citywide community performances will mark the tail end of the “travelling festival of hope” when Little Amal visits London from Friday until Monday, October 25, including events at St Paul’s Cathedral and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.
“We can’t wait to welcome Little Amal,” tweeted the Royal Opera House, where an evening vigil will be held and the giant puppet will "sleep" for the night.
A party to celebrate Little Amal’s 10th birthday will take place at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with children from across London in attendance and a birthday cake made by well-known chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
“Every show I’ve produced has been preparation for producing The Walk,” says David Lan, a producer at Good Chance Theatre.
“We‘ve long believed that artists, grassroots communities and civic society leaders should come together to make art that matters in the real world. The Walk is that coming together.”
It takes three puppeteers to operate Little Amal – a stilt walker who also animates her face and a puppeteer on each of her arms. The entire team of 10 puppeteers includes two from refugee backgrounds who have themselves travelled the route.
Built by the Handspring Puppet Company, a pre-eminent puppet production company best known for its work on the hit play War Horse, Little Amal was built from moulded cane and carbon fibre that allows her to be operated for long periods and under various weather conditions.
Little Amal will also visit various cities in the UK before finishing The Walk in Manchester on Wednesday, November 3, with a finale event produced by Manchester International Festival.
'The Walk' events in London
When: Friday, October 22, 10am-noon BST; Where: Deptford Broadway, Lewisham
Little Amal’s first stop in London will be a magical, fun-filled morning in Deptford, Lewisham’s first major event as it prepares to be part of the Mayor of London’s Borough of Culture in 2022 and the country’s first Borough of Sanctuary. It will be a family-friendly interactive event during which Amal will explore Deptford High Street with local children who will teach her all about life in Lewisham and learn about her journey.
When: Saturday, October 23, 10am BST; Where: St Paul’s Cathedral
The Great West Door, the ceremonial entrance to St Paul's Cathedral, will open wide allowing children from across London, members of the St Paul’s community and other faith leaders to welcome Amal to the space. The event will be filled with spoken words and music directed by filmmaker Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!), before Little Amal is guided through the cathedral gardens.
When: Saturday, October 23, 1pm BST; Where: Shakespeare’s Globe
As she continues her journey across London, Little Amal will visit Shakespeare’s Globe. At the Groundling Gates of the open-air theatre on Bankside, the public, audience members and company of Twelfth Night will have the chance to meet Little Amal before the matinee performance.
When: Saturday, October 23, 4pm BST; Where: The Clore Ballroom, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
Little Amal will arrive at the Southbank Centre to take part in Welcome Wishes, part of the London Literature Festival. Through craft, singing and storytelling, audiences will be transported to the world of Swallow’s Kiss, a new novel by writer Sita Brahmachari and illustrator Jane Ray.
The uplifting tale helps young readers to understand the lives of refugee children and follows the story of Blessing, who discovers a bag of paper birds bearing wishes written by refugee children from around the world and flies to meet the people who made them.
When: Saturday, October 23, 5.45pm BST; Where: The National Theatre
The National Theatre will welcome Little Amal with a choir singing from its terraces. It will be made up of the theatre's Public Acts initiative community members, staff and singers from other choirs in the local area. Singer-songwriter Juliana Yazbeck will perform a welcoming solo that will lead into the choir performing I Am My Own Way Home from Pericles. The Shakespeare play was first performed in the Olivier Theatre in 2018, launching the National Theatre’s Public Acts initiative to create extraordinary acts of theatre and community.
When: Saturday, October 23, 7pm BST; Where: Somerset House
After crossing Waterloo Bridge, Amal will arrive at the spectacular Somerset House courtyard and will be welcomed by a 20-minute dance specially choreographed by Ruby Portus. This will include an intergenerational cast of dancers from the National Youth Dance Company and the Company of Elders, which are run by Sadler's Wells theatre.
When: Saturday, October 23, 11.15pm BST; Where: Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House will welcome Little Amal, giving her A Bed for the Night in the Paul Hamlyn Hall. The evening’s programme will include performances by Phosphoros Theatre Company, dancers from The Royal Ballet, singers from The Royal Opera and Citizens of the World Choir, and Syrian oud player Rihab Azar, who lives in London.