Approaching Macau is an unsettling experience. It’s almost exactly like Las Vegas — enormous, glitzy casinos with familiar names emblazoned in lights: Sands, Wynn, MGM. Except, of course, in Vegas they’re surrounded by desert, while here we’re coming at them from the rolling South China Sea.
The busy harbour sees high-speed ferries from Hong Kong and Shenzhen, both around 40 miles away, pull in every 15 minutes or so. And behind the shining casinos and mega-hotels are a series of picturesque Portuguese towns and villages — Macau was an overseas territory until 1999.
To the City of Dreams: a huge, purpose-built theatre where the audience sits around a circular stage submerged in water. There are pretty patterns on the bottom of the shallow pool, lights hanging down on fishing nets, and the sweet strains of Chinese music fill the air as a fisherman travels on a boat past a cityscape background.
Suddenly, there’s commotion as a whirlpool appears and the fisherman is dragged back in time. Then, from the seemingly shallow pool, a huge, full-size ship appears, with acrobats flinging themselves off, diving down from an enormous height into the water, only to reappear at the edge of the pool, climb the rigging and do the same again, only this time even more audaciously.
There’s a survivor from the shipwreck, as well as a young brave stranger and a princess thrown into a cage by her evil stepmother, the Dark Queen. The fisherman helps the mysterious stranger fight the queen and rescue the princess, and is rewarded for his actions.
At least, I think that’s what happens. The story takes some obscure twists and turns and is, to be honest, secondary to the spectacle. Produced by Franco Dragone, famous for his work with Cirque du Soleil, this is theatre on an enormously grand scale.
Incidentally, there was once an actual Cirque du Soleil show in Macau — Zaia, at the Venetian on the Cotai Strip — but it recorded losses from its opening in 2008 to its closure in 2012. According to our guide in Macau, the Chinese didn’t like it because it wasn’t dangerous enough; they regard safety harnesses as cheating. If the performers aren’t risking death, it’s not entertainment.
There doesn’t seem to be much cheating going on in The House of Dancing Water. The artistes throw themselves from the most terrifying heights, tumbling over and over into the water. A high dive towards the end takes place from 24.5m above the stage; I had to hide behind my hands.
Everything about this show screams extravaganza. A cast of 80, plus 160 production staff, technicians and professional divers work around the world’s largest commercial pool, with 239 water jets creating 18m-high fountains. The solid floor converts to a deep aquatic pool in less than a minute using 11 ten-tonne hydraulic elevators.
All these facts and figures add up to 90 minutes of general theatrical lunacy, culminating in a frankly bonkers sequence involving six motorcycle stuntmen flying up to 15m into the air and provoking real, loud gasps from the audience.
Extravagant, beautiful, puzzling — it’s almost a perfect metaphor for Macau itself.