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Puppets on the FRINGE - the sequal


Festival die-hard Beccy Smith sees a great deal of puppetry in Edinburgh


One year ago Animations reported breathlessly on the rise of puppetry at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (the UK’'s biggest arts festival), its proliferation indicative of the form’'s increasing availability as a performance-making tool for companies in a variety of contexts; its recognition through reviews and awards suggestive of a growing awareness of its theatrical potency. This report is the sequel, and like all good sequels it happily borrows all the best bits from its predecessor whilst taking our heroes and their thrills to bold new levels.

Our hero puppetry (puppetry, that is, whose appeal was to a general rather than child-focussed audience) reprised his role as a key player on the Fringe this year with a number of adult shows registering on the mainstream radar. Jim Henson’'s Puppet Improv offered two versions of it: compered impro games whose content was the unholy union of Whose Line is It Anyway? And Avenue Q. The best thing about this show was actually its format –a split focus on stage and screen, where the first was the TV-style  ‘'Puppet Up: The Puppet Improvisation Show’' and the second ‘'the chaos and nonsense that goes on underneath Show No. 1 which is particularly weird for us puppets.’' There were constant shifts of focus between, on the one hand, the many screens that flanked the stage and on which the puppeteers monitored their own work, and on the other watching the performers themselves dynamically deconstructing the puppetry on display, emphatically highlighting the enormous manipulation skills on show. It was energising to watch. The adult content unfortunately couldn’'t really live up to these standards: the short skits were limited in improvisational range, generally curtailed after only a minute or two on a filthy one-liner by the desperately enthusiastic compere, and were heavily reliant on set up impro games to keep them moving. In contrast, the characterisation, vocalisation and manipulation of a diversity of characters that ranged in scale from tiny rod hotdogs to a three-man table-top style monster was brilliant and utterly compelling. The largely young, student audience loved it, but I was more excited by the fact that the puppetry rather than the material was clearly the star of the show.  Intriguingly, by all reports the children’'s show was less successful with its audience, arguably as a younger audience would have been more reliant on the content, rather than the mode of delivery, to carry their attention.

Elsewhere, the charming ensemble show, Little Red Things also achieved cult status, prompting Scotsman critic Roger Cox to comment on the ‘'adult puppetry renaissance’' as the artform reached venues and audiences where its presence had never been felt before. The company wove an inventive tale of the ‘'little red things’': innocent creatures created by human inspiration whose wide-eyed, bean bag forms must be collected and distributed through the land to maintain the cycle of creativity. The show made great use of musical scoring, with a haunting live piano accompaniment really flavouring the emotional fantasy world created by young company Gomito Productions. The classical physical theatre set pieces in the show were lifted by the exuberance of the company and the originality of the tale. The show’'s completely endearing scarlet puppets undoubtedly influenced the popularity of the piece, popping up in all sorts of unexpected places across the Fringe.  The host, Bedlam Theatre, must get a special mention this year for its support of two puppetry-led shows, a telling departure for this new work led venue. Gomito’'s bed-fellows Pangolin’'s Teatime presented Haozkla, which combined traditional bunraku figures with animated set, shadow, spectacle, new writing and farce. Their combination of original and beautifully crafted bunraku figures, confident new writing and a willingness to take their puppets to the streets (an ingenious supplement to the show via a number of site specific spectacles across Edinburgh) place this new group in the auspicious company of acclaimed innovators Blind Summit.
The arrival of Unpacked’'s latest show, No Obvious Trauma, to the Pleasance Courtyard similarly testified to the growing appeal of original devised work to a broader market of venues and audiences. Their pared down version of the show made up in clarity and a compelling grim inevitability what it lost in some of the shading of the earlier version. Crucially, this is great example of a show whose emotional punch is located squarely in its puppetry: the emotions of both patient and doctor are displaced through objects whose charge is one of the most compelling features of the piece.

Both No Obvious Trauma and Little Red Things were recognised by the Total Theatre Awards and longlisted in recognition of their ability to use physical and visual performance to communicate, entertain and inspire. In our Prequel, editor Dorothy Max Prior identified puppetry’'s increasing prominence amongst nominated and successful shows for the Awards as  ‘'a sign both of the emergence of puppet-theatre into the more general physical and visual performance sector, and the growing integration of puppetry and animation within devised, physical and visual theatre practice’'.  In  2006 this trend certainly continued to burgeon: longlisted shows such as Peta Lily and Karola Gajda’'s My Polish Roots and Other Vegetables animated their theme with stop motion vegetable fun and object animation played a crucial role in the realisation of the rhythmic energy of the frenetic kitchen land psychic life of theimaginarybody’'s Food.  Total Theatre Award winners Will Adamsdale and Chris Branch characterised a distant and disempowered world with tiny models in The Receipt, and Total Theatre Best Newcomers Chotto Ooki visually realised their surreal and pungent paranoid world, in a show entitled And Even My Goldfish, with emotionally and colourfully charged objects forming an integral part of their unique aesthetic. The powerfully physical work is peppered with images of extraordinary simplicity and lyricism, such as a moment when an extending red ribbon echoes the effect of a withdrawing kiss.

Excitingly, puppetry’'s recognition this year also breached the mainstream newspaper awards. A highlight of the festival which received prestigious recognition, garnering a Scotsman Fringe First, was Blue Scream Theatre’'s reworking of Tom Thumb. The hyperbole of Tom’'s fables are thoughtfully recast as the ramblings of an aged and dying man. The company tread beautifully the line between imaginative incarnations (his visions of himself as a tiny man in a world full of peril and magic) and exposing their grim interpretation from a more ‘'realistic’' point of view.  It’'s an interpretation which allows the work to reach both comic and movingly tragic depths, and is written and directed with virtuosic skill.  Studded with moments of visual flair, great live music and expert bunraku, this gem of a show demonstrated the power of puppetry to entrance and to move an audience both young and old, and to win critical praise from an award scheme originally established to celebrate the best of new writing on the Fringe. 

Of course it’'s an accepted truth that in terms of integration into the mainstream, the rest of the world has been leaps and bounds ahead of the UK. Inspirational forebears were much in evidence at the festival, continuing to push the animated envelope. World-renowned Mummenschanz MZ showcased more than twenty five years’' experience creating their groundbreaking performances. The theatre was transformed into a playground for a procession of generally abstract, yet consistently anthropomorphic giant objects.  The performance was a fabulous demonstration of how little an audience requires to characterise an object.  A well-chosen movement, an indignant shrug for example, is enough to humanise a ten-foot coiled spring. We laugh with recognition and there’'s a real childlike delight in watching Company MZ perform, as a dazzling array of utterly bizarre and enormous objects traverse the stage (from enormous amorphous blobs to figures whose facial features are toilet rolls). But having given us the moment of recognition, Company MZ went no further with their scenes: there’'s not enough to say about any of the object/characters to make any development worthwhile. All the creativity seems to have gone into designing ingenious objects, and all that is left for them to do is to demonstrate their function and then depart. The most genuinely theatrical moments emerge towards the end of the show: two slender sticks are masterfully transformed into profiles; into serpents; into one giant figure; and the development of the interaction here is satisfying. Later there is a skilful demonstration of large Plasticine transformative masks who perform a Commedia skit, changing character before our eyes. In these scenes the potential, skills and unique alchemy of this company were much in evidence: its absence elsewhere then felt rather more disappointing.

Ovo was the second visit to Edinburgh from award-winning theatrical inventors, Udi Grudi who took the Fringe by storm with O Cano back in 2000.  The unique selling point of this new circus troupe is the creation of original musical instruments from junk, the instruments hovering between representation and presentation, the ‘'rub’' between the two energising their performances. They also employ water and fire on stage to similar powerful effect. The opening was arresting: a huge abstract pile of papers and receipts which animates, then dances with a wily tramp, felt exciting and unsettling.    Animation of tiny glass chimes on the blackcloth which made music as the cloth rustled generated a pregnant sense of transformation. Unfortunately this energy later dissipated, the content too often relying upon a rather hackneyed clowning dynamic to try to fill scenes too obviously centred upon realising the next bizarre invention. There were other great moments: most notably the transformation of an endearing pipe/dog/sitar into a hot dog for the starving tramps, but ultimately the whole piece felt too often in the service of its creative tricks and we were left disengaged by characters and scenarios which could have been both entrancing and pertinent.

Of course our hero puppetry also encountered some setbacks along the way. Puppet City demonstrated the impressive skills of Korea’'s Hyundai’'s Puppet Company but was effectively simply that, a showcase event. The frame of a talent contest set the scene and the format allowed for demonstrations of synchronised dancing and fighting, variously mythic and human. The puppetry was faultless, if archaic: largely ingenious marionettes, operating on feet, arms and jaws. Their movement across the pros arch frame was fluid, detailed and faultless. Yet despite their detailed realism, there was something very alien about the performance: we were charmed but remained uninvolved. This wouldn’'t have mattered had the company not made so many clear invitations to the audience through a range of dramatic and comic ploys (whose patronising tone often fell somewhere between Playdays and Banzai). Ultimately we remained voyeurs at a cultural event rather than involved in the strange dream unfolding before us.

Closer to home the shock value in using puppetry in explicitly ‘'adult’' contexts, navigated with arch success by Jim Henson’'s troupe, proved more perilous for other productions. Cloud Cuckoo Land's Bleep n Grind was an astonishingly ill-judged black light show which used neo lights, fluorescent puppets and one poor and apparently apathetic performer to tell the bizarrely naive story of a free-thinking robot whose love of dance leads her to infamy and addiction, loneliness and exploitation.  The show was ambitious, mobilising a phalanx of unusual visual motifs and a range of puppetry, including a bevy of It-girls on casters and an inventively object-based Bladerunner-esqe seedy agent supplementing the standard black-light fare. The pity of this show was that the clear originality of the tone couldn't compensate the absence of a decent script or performers and that the technical complexity of its challenging aesthetic crucially hampered the storytelling throughout. 

In contrast some of the most assured storytelling was demonstrated in the two outstanding puppet-based children's shows I was able to enjoy. Presented in association with the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Puppet State Theatre’'s The Man Who Planted Trees showcased the compelling tale of Elzeard Bouffier, a man who over the course of more than fifty years in the twentieth century transformed a region in southern France by hand planting thousands of trees every year. The story’'s emotional and historical grounding and, conversely, its mythic overtones, made it feel entirely real. Like all great children’'s art it dealt with universal issues: grief, greed, apathy, hope. The moral of Jean Giono’'s (in fact) fictional tale resonated profoundly, asserting the possibility for individual action to have a collective effect. The delicately written tale gained much from some great theatrical effects employed effortlessly by Puppet State, including filing the space with the scent of the plane trees and some lovely plays on scale through some great models.  Most effectively however, this piece turned on the dynamic between puppeteer protagonist and his glove puppet companion, Dog (whose comic character owed a lot to Henson). Their opening agreement to tell the tale together generated a sense of sharing in the storytelling game for the whole audience and this lightness of touch was retained throughout. The show was modest, perfectly formed and completely appealing. 

Theatre of Widdershins’' The King’'s Got Donkey Ears was a playful and very enjoyable one-man romp through a little known fairy tale. Told with a sure eye on the desires of a younger audience, with direct interaction, songs and silly yet skilful comedy aplenty, the story nevertheless manages to keep the adults enthralled too. This was party due to the beautifully crafted puppets, of which there are an astonishing number (some featuring for only a few minutes), and partly down to the charismatic performance of Andrew Lawrence, who works incredibly hard to hold our attention throughout, as he changes characters and transforms the magic-box set before our eyes.  

There was, I felt, some tension between the inventiveness of the storytelling (I especially enjoyed the tale of a secret told to the ground, which sinks down through strata Lawrence reveals to us, to germinate a seed which grows into a plant, which tells the secret when transformed into a lute) and the traditional forms of the puppets: a rod puppet on a trick unicycle, a hairy glove dog and wooden rod figures of the main characters.

There remains some danger, as puppetry traverses from its own fringe into the mainstream, of reliance on the novelty to audiences of seeing puppetry at all, of allowing the craft to showcase rather than challenge itself.  

Yet whilst this was a latent characteristic in many of the performances featuring puppetry at this year’'s Fringe there remains much to celebrate.  The Kings Got Donkey Ears was sponsored by Escalator East to Edinburgh, an Arts Council initiative bringing some of the Eastern region’'s best emerging talent to greater national prominence.  That puppetry was featured amongst the auspicious companies promoted is a further accolade to add to puppetry’'s cluster of awards at the end of this season. At the Fringe 2006, puppetry has proven itself a versatile performer – both show stealing character-actor and commanding stage star. Who says sequels never match the original? – I’'m already looking ahead to Fringe III: The Conquest.

For further information on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and dates for 2007, see


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