Penny Francis reports
on two major UK festivals with very different remits
Teatron Theater in collaboration with
has to wonder a little about the apparently malign influence
of the spirits of puppetry, especially when packed into a
festival...Bad luck struck the two Easter festivals in Britain
this year, bringing a fair proportion of disasters to their
two chiefs. Both Simon Hart in Edinburgh and Andrew Smaje
in Bath suffered personal and professional blows respectively,
as though running an international festival wasn't hard enough.
However in both cases they managed to produce excellent results,
and maintained a cheerful countenance.
The Scottish festival, now known as PAF, the Puppet Animation
Festival, consisted of children's work toured by some 18 groups
blanketing the country: 200 events in 100 Venues, the programme
said. Most companies were Scottish, two foreign (from USA
and Belgium) and two or three English. There was a programme
of film animation too, and the whole event lasted over a month!
So that the performers should not merely wave at each other
as their vans crossed paths on the lowlands and highlands,
Simon Hart organised a day for them to meet in Edinburgh.
Everyone got a chance to see the American Ines Zeller of Sandglass
play Isidor's Cheek, a perfectly charming piece of miniature
theatre with a number of settings on a table which she turned
around her body, and the Belgian romp by Vlinders and Co.
called Oetsie Poetsie which brought kitchen and cleaning implements
to life on an open stage.
was a short forum which Simon and I led. My principal purpose
was to remind the Scots puppeteers of the many advantages
of being a member of UNIMA, and to hear a little of the activities
and problems of the puppetry community in Scotland. The Scottish
Arts Council has commissioned a national report on the state
of the art form that is about to be published, if it is not
already available - try the SAC website. (The Calouste Gulbenkian
Foundation commissioned a similar report in 1992 for England).
So there seems to be a buzz around puppetry in Scotland at
the moment, which the festival has done a lot to promote,
naturally. This was the 20th edition!
Bath festival is of a different character. Specialising in
adult work, but with four shows for kids too, Andrew Smaje
chose some unusual and innovative productions from Britain
and abroad. There were two advertised companies from Germany,
one of which has not, I think, been here before — Figurentheater
Wilde und Vogel.
Figurentheater Tubingen has been here before, but in the event
they cancelled at the last minute (see about the misfortunes
of the puppet festival organiser above) but replaced themselves
with a production which has been highly spoken of for a few
years: The Dwarf by Teatron Theatre, originally from Israel
but now resident in Germany - played as a humanette dwarf
by Yehuda Almagor.
In the festival programme Andrew Smaje asked the question:
What is adult puppetry? His interest was roused when in 1998
he saw a Spanish production of Don Quixote and entered a new
world of theatre, which he decided to explore and expose to
larger audiences. He believes the specific skills of puppetry
need guarding and developing so that they do not become diluted
and under-valued. However he picks quite a few shows which
involve multi-disciplinary and multi-media performance. He
answered his own question thus: Adult puppetry involves complexity
of ideas and concepts which are best suited to teenagers and
adults. It doesn't mean that a show is X-rated material (though
beware, it might be!).
I saw the Wilde & Vogel piece about Robert Schumann, entitled
Toccata, which was certainly complex. Faultlessly performed
by a single actor and a harmonium player (Schumann's piano
music on the harmonium was a little hard to take), with as
much complexity in the settings and puppets as in the writing.
I felt it assumed too much knowledge in the spectator of the
life of Schumann, and much of it was impenetrable to many.
The visual beauty of the ghostly puppets and fabrics was undeniable,
but more than one or two of those watching were left puzzled
about the content. I was happier with the Exit — a Hamlet
Fantasy as I admit to knowing a great deal more about Hamlet
than about Schumann. I saw and reviewed Hamlet a few years
ago, and found it more comedic, rough and hard-edged, as to
the materials used, the semiotics and the tone of the acting.
The same company brought a third offering, a show for the
over-8's, about the effect on a child of the loss of its parents.
Andrew Smaje described it as ‘serious, disturbing and moving'.
This is an important, if demanding, company.
Other pleasures of the festival were the Scratch night in
which several new works-in-progress were given an airing.
Each piece was quite different, and many came from the students
and ex-students of the Central School of Speech and Drama
and the London School of Puppetry, all of whom showed varying
degrees of promise. Only one masked piece with a strong Japanese
accent seemed unsuccessful because it was too long for its
content: a very slow Noh show. The last item, by contrast,
revealed the head of the London School herself: Caroline Astell-Burt
in a lively and comic divertissement played with great panache
which was wildly applauded.
In Bath the revelation for me was the Mimika theatre of Leeds
in the much-travelled and acclaimed Landscapes. It takes place
in a domed tent of unbleached linen and bamboo, which holds
an audience of about 40, and the show is an enchanting experience.
In three parts, it reveals the flora and fauna of three natural
habitats, the desert, the rainforest and the sea, by means
of superbly crafted, naturalistic figures and an inspired
geometric set full of trapdoors and hidden surprises. The
set was transformed for each episode through the application
of ingenious design, lighting and a good soundtrack proportionate
to the scale of the three pieces, but no words. The company's
originality of approach, though simple enough, acknowledges
the finer sensibilities both of children and adults.
The prevalence of productions for adults using puppetry would
have been unimaginable a decade or so ago. Poetry, science
fiction, horror, fantasy, illusion and chimera - even sex
and violence - have been adopted as material perfectly inhabited
by puppetry. The Bath festival shows how wide the area is,
and how much there is still to explore.