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Feature: Festival, Festival

Penny Francis reports on two major UK festivals with very different remits

Teatron Theater in collaboration with Figurentheater Tubingen

One 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.

There 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!
The 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.

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