Culture » Performing Arts

The man in the arena



"Batman is very American," says Jack Walker, the 30-year-old Londoner who plays the icon in the touring arena show Batman Live. So the actor has had to really work at this character — though not for the reason you might assume.

"'You're playing Batman but you're English? Do you speak with an English accent?' I get that question a lot," Walker says, laughing. "No, I'm an actor. ... The accent is quite fun to do."

The challenge is found in acting as Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne — so much so that Walker says he's had to break through a cultural barrier to connect with the character.

"Bruce Wayne, he has to be kind of a big deal, you know. He has to be very confident, and own his space, in a way I'm not used to as a person outside of acting ... That's the thing about British culture, that I think is maybe a difference. It's very self-deprecating — you should never get above your station. Humility is valued in a big way, to the point where you'll just get shut down if you don't present as humble. ...

"Whereas in America — which I think is a good thing, that positivity — it's about people achieving, and not shying away from their potential."

Crushing villains

Within a classic Gotham City setting, Batman Live tells the story of how Batman meets Robin, "two gentlemen who have something very similar in common, and that's what's happened to their families and how they have to deal with that and how they become a partnership," says resident director Steven Minning.

If the concept sounds straightforward, the production, designed specifically for arena settings, appears anything but. Watch the videos online and you might think it's basically Cirque du Soleil gone Gotham.

Not true, says Minning (who, as a former Cirque staffer, should know).

First and foremost, he insists, it has a strong original story, scripted by writer/producer Allan Heinberg, whose résumé includes such shows as Sex and the City and Grey's Anatomy, as well as Legion of Super Heroes for Warner Bros. Animation. It's a live show that incorporates dance, acrobatics, pyrotechnics, flight sequences and, of course, a tricked-out Batmobile. It also features a 105-foot bat-signal-shaped LED video wall, which screens film that supports the storyline. At times, the wall acts as a scene's background, and at other times moves the audience from one locale to another.

Amid all this, the show's also intensely action-packed, requiring a serious physical commitment from the performers. Batman himself has to battle the Joker, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, the Riddler, Two-Face, Poison Ivy and the Penguin, along with their 30-some acrobatic accomplices, while wrapped in a harness and a 40-pound caped Batsuit. Add in a few quick Bruce Wayne costume changes throughout the night — "which take about a minute with the help of about four wardrobe people backstage," says Walker — and this show would be physically brutal on even the fictional superhero.

"I'd done stage combat before, in drama school and things like that," Walker says. "But hand-to-hand combat, and fighting with sticks, and fighting with swords, flying through the air. ... It's more about just filling between lines, in school. Whereas this, you really have to look like you can beat up 50 people without breaking a sweat."

Minning admits he doesn't know if there's ever been so many villains and arch-enemies all in one Batman storyline, and laughs when asked if it's fair to the guy to pack so many in.

"You'll see," the director says. "He deals with them quite well."

Caped crusader

Batman Live started its days travelling through Europe, then South America, before coming to Las Vegas for its American tour about seven weeks ago. Walker's been a part of this production for just more than a year now.

"Like everyone," he's been a Batman fan for much longer — since childhood — and says putting on the costume is much like fulfilling a little boy's dream.

"It's impossible to not like Batman. I think that's part of it," he says. "Aside from, like, the iconic image and the spectacle of it that it all is — and it really is, isn't it? Everything with how Batman looks and the Batman world, and all the villains, and Batman himself and all his gadgets — aside from all that stuff, there's something about it that feels very real without having to go into to much extra depth. It's just all there. And I think that's why the character is so enduring."

Of course, "real" life is complicated. So beyond Bruce Wayne's bravado, Walker also has to give Batman Live's lead character a good dose of nuance. "When you meet Bruce Wayne, there is a certain amount of artifice going on, which is integral to the idea of having an alter ego," he says. "I think that comes across because you see early on the quite clear distinction between his motives as Bruce Wayne and as Batman. You can see that this character is very purposefully presenting two different sides of himself."

As the show goes on, he says, those two aspects of his character slowly merge as personal facts are revealed through the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, aka Robin. The different levels of Batman's character are brought out in the story, "rather than us having to, like, bang people over the head with it."

"It's not just an encapsulation of spectacular set pieces. You know what I mean?" Walker asks.

"You've got to keep the audience with it and engaged throughout, so all those big moments, those spectacular moments, are like cherries on top."

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