23rd November 2017

In the belly of the beast

Tom Morton is taken on a journey behind the wire and into Mareel Zone

“If you don’t have steel toe caps, I’ve got spare boots,” says the genial Richard Wemyss, Shetland Arts’ Head of Operations for Mareel. This is not so I can give either his employer or Richard himself a substantial kicking, it seems, but to protect my feet from falling architects, accountants or other extraneous objects that may be loose in the construction site down at the North Ness. I have a pair of ultralight Magnum Tactical Boots, as favoured by the very best riot police, so I make sure I’m wearing them for my journey into the Heart of Artiness.

I am not alone. Richard is leading a small group of interested folk around the £10 million music venue, cinema duoplex, office suite, dancehall and controversy-magnet that is Mareel. I do not propose to name my fellow pilgrims. How they looked in hard hats and hi-viz vests will remain a secret.

It is the beginning of February, and a furiously boiling row between Shetland Arts and DITT, main contractor for the project, has just died down to a simmering pot of resentment and recrimination. Gwylim Gibbons and Kath Hubbard’s cheery video announcing a May opening has turned out to be premature. Shetland Arts is blaming DITT. DITT is blaming Shetland Arts. Now nobody will say officially when the great hanger that blocks the view from the Brown’s Road houses will open.

So I ask Richard, and he says August. Well, actually, I suggest August, and he agrees that yes, it should be. Probably. DITT has agreed a handover of the building at the end of May, and after that, it should be fairly straightforward to install the cinema equipment and seating at least. Talk, already heard, of a ‘soft opening’ is bandied about. It means ‘staggered opening, or opening whatever bit’s ready. Not ‘staggering’, though. No negativity please. It’s likely that the cinemas – one of which holds 160 people, the other just 35 – will be operating first. It’s unfair to take bookings for the main venue, adds Richard, until they’re absolutely sure when it will be operational. Or announce any programme of events.

Which is fair enough, if some bookings by independent promoters hadn’t already had to be cancelled, causing an outbreak of fury that few are prepared to express publicly (apart from Jeff Merrifield of Jazz Club and Jazz Festival fame, who almost set the pages of The Shetland Times alight in his rage). And planning for the future of live music remains almost impossible until the building is ready, reliable and Shetland Arts announces its own schedule of performances.

And the building is not ready. Anyone familiar with construction work will know about that agonising period between wind-and-watertightness and occupation. It can last for months, with little progress apparently being made on a daily basis. As we enter through what will be the main entrance, it is evident that DITT’s guys are working hard. Machines whirr, crunch and howl, and so do the workforce, only not as loudly.

What about the rumours, then Richard? All that stuff about the cabling having to be ripped out? Yes, some cabling has had to be removed and replaced, admits our host, but the rumours are ridiculous. As are the ones about rusty roof panels. Overwhelming positivity is the order of the day. There is a kind of evangelical joy and passion on Richard’s face as he takes into the foyer, with its mezzanine level and its…what’s that? That little counter thing over there?

That’s the cafe bar. What, the cafe AND the bar? Yes. So where are the kitchens? That’s the kitchen in behind it. But it’s…Yes, it’s about the same size as the Bonhoga kitchen. But we’re not planning to do full meals, it’ll just be panini and things like that. And drinks? Yes, a full range of drinks there. But we have other areas of the building licensed too, and we can use portable and temporary bars for bigger events.

Now, one of my anonymous companions is a catering expert, and the expression on his face is one of staggered thunderstruckdom. There will be room in the foyer, seated, for around 50 people downstairs and 50 up in the gods to eat and drink comfortably, though the entire audience for a standing event in the main auditorium – up to 750 people – can apparently be accommodated standing in the space before ‘doors open’ time. It’s hard to see how everyone who wants will get refreshment in that situation, even with extra, temporary bars.

You can see what’s happened. Strong local lobbying over the provision of catering and bar facilities at Mareel that would compete with other businesses in Lerwick dogged the project at the design stage – Richard is now talking about buying in catering from outside contractors. But on the other hand, income from the bar and cafe was always a crucial part of the Mareel business plan, and  it is plain from the tiny kitchen and bar that such hopes are, at the very least, ill-founded. In 2004, a report indicated that the building would have an annual working deficit of around £87,000. On the basis of what I’m seeing here, you can choose the factor you’d multiply that by. I’m aghast. I’m not the only one.

But then we enter the main hall, and I’m impressed. It’s a fantastic space, well on the way to basic completion. Between 650 and 750 standing, says Richard, and it will hold 345 on a mixture of flat and raked stadium seating which retracts under the rear balcony. The balcony will hold around 85 people in a cabaret setting, with up to another 220 on tables on the main floor. There will be table service and interval orders for drinks, with extra bar facilities provided. The logistics of that again look questionable, but as a place to see and hear music and theatre, or have a wee jig, it’s splendid. Oddly, the balcony, says Richard, cannot be used during standing events, as the railing is too low – its design meets regulations for a seated audience only.

The main cinema is probably closest to completion of anything here, and it too is very impressive. The plans for late night screenings, matinees, the availability of the cinema spaces for private hire or private showing of films for parties – it all sounds great and is evidently achievable. Also, the soundproofing seems good, with all sound sources contained. Though whether or not Richard is correct and you could have heavy metal in the main hall, a Bruce Willis movie in the big cinema and an acoustic session in the cafe, all happening at the same time, we can only wait to see.

Electronically, equipment-wise, the place is bare. No sound gear, no projectors (digital). The controversial cabling, once complete, will see every live venue in the place connected to the central recording hub, which is also an education space and already has status as a ‘ProTools Academy’,  where one of the top recording software suites can be taught to a new generation of recording engineers. And it’s at this point I ask if the toilets are working. They are not.

I have been overtaken by an overdose of lentils. I’m sorry to go into this level of dietary detail, but there it is. I must escape, it seems to the Blue Hoose, DITT’s temporary site HQ over the road. Alone, I navigate the tortuous corridors of Mareel and make it to the changing rooms at the Blue Hoose. There is a piece of graffiti on the floor of the cubicle I use, reading “ANOTHER DAY WASTED WORKING FOR DITT.”  Such, evidently, is the existential angst involved in building an arts centre.

On my way to rejoin our party, winding past the office area Creative Scotland stumped up extra cash for, it strikes me how cramped Mareel feels . It’s not a Tardis. It looks far bigger on the  outside than in. And yet so much is being crammed into the building. Think about it: Two cinemas, a large music venue, a cafe bar, a shop, administration for Mareel itself, office accommodation for most of Shetland Arts, toilets, a recording studio, rehearsal rooms, backstage changing rooms, plant. And more. Inevitably, I get lost. But then I notice a glow. It is the aura of saintly certainty surrounding Richard, and it leads along the path of truth to the women’s toilets, where, apparently, you can look out of the window and see right into the cafe bar, enabling the semaphore ordering of drinks from any visible friend. That’s handy. If they’re at the front of queue.

We leave, and hand over our safety helmets, vests and, in some cases (but not mine) boots. I feel a mixture of misgiving and hope. It’s quite clear that a lot of mistakes have been made with Mareel, that finance-fuelled changes to the design (particularly in catering and the incorporation of office accommodation) have drastically affected what will eventually be on offer, and indeed the viability of the up-and-running project. I’m uneasy about the building’s ability to safely and easily accommodate major rock or dance events, particularly when you add drink to the mix. There’s too much shoehorned into spaces that don’t feel quite right. The external lighting project, an art installation reflecting that phosphorescent name, seems, like the museum’s Teletubbies pier soundscape, artily ridiculous.

And yet I am thrilled at the prospect of two proper cinemas, of a really excellent music venue. To be honest I don’t really care about the rest of it. Another cafe is unnecessary, the recording studio is probably a waste of time and space given the way technology has developed, and if you want to dance, put a mirror and a handrail in the garage. And whatever happened to the video editing suite?

What looks fairly certain, though, is that there will be more delays, and more disagreement among the contractors, architects and clients. That could get very messy indeed, and while there are already rumblings of concern from the big funding agencies south, never forget how much Shetland money is involved in this. At a time when cash is in short supply.

We bid our farewells. Richard is a nice guy and his confidence is impressive. But with other senior sources within Shetland Arts admitting privately that the whole thing is now “a gamble”, my hopes for Mareel are leavened by what I can only call pessimistic realism:

There will be more problems, probably relating to equipment. There will be more delays. Income from the building will be a fraction of what was anticipated. There will be logistical problems relating to audience numbers(too many and too few) and alcohol sales. There will be safety fears due to overcrowding and proximity to water. There will probably be lawsuits, and if Shetland Arts isn’t careful, the whole project could be taken out of its hands or the agency shut down and incorporated formally into the council.

Or a team of consultants will be brought in. Actually, you can bet on that. There are always consultants!