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> Visions Festival Round-Up
by Becky Smith

> Moby Duck
by Chris Abbott

> Venus and Adonis
by Beccy Smith.

Visions Festival October 2004
Round-Up Reviews by Beccy Smith

Aie Aie Aie - My Eye,
La Ou Theatre - Habitable
A Cel Obert - Adios Nonino
Visions Festival, Sallis Benney Theatre, University of Brighton.
The Star Keeper, Theatre d L’Oeil
Visions Festival, Gardner Arts Centre.

Visions’ commitment to visual theatre inflects but hasn’t diluted this biennial festival’s established devotion to the artform of puppetry. This year’s programme offered a wealth of performances using puppetry in a range of ways, from internationally renowned companies as well as emergent artists, with the addition of the Launchpad programme offering an exciting platform for new work to develop and a younger generation of artists to reach festival audiences.
The short object-dance piece Habitable by La Ou Theatre (commissioned by the International Institute of Puppetry) was a study in the performer’s relationship with an object. Moving through dependency, intimacy, insecurity and competition - to name just a few - the piece rendered in delicate, touching, corporeal mime the emotional and physical possibilities offered between the human form and the elastic chair. This was an intimate, delicate piece, subtly counter-pointed by small sounds collected and mixed live from the performance space and beautifully lit to indicate the passing of time. This precision carried over into the manipulation involved, with a control and fluidity which effectively imbued the chair with character and created the emotional backbone of the work. There was a ritualistic feel to the laying down of dance mats which opened the piece and which the unexplained intimacy between body and chair continued. This sense lent a gravity to the act of manipulation resonant of puppetry’s rich past yet reshaped into a very contemporary form.
Audience pleasure was the order of the day in My Eye, an installation performance which stripped puppetry down to one of its most basic moments through the discovery of eyes within a series of animate and inanimate objects. Taking place within a self-enclosed world of cloth where even the light-fittings are coated in flannel, the audience were transported into the tiny workplace of an old-fashioned French tailor, busily sewing puppets in his cramped woollen tent. The intricately constructed set hummed with a sense of life, with the entire performance space articulated with ingenuous contraptions: sprung drawers which popped open to reveal pockets of equipment and tiny spotlights for miniature dancing figures; magnetised hooks which scooped up needles and pins; a swinging desktop lamp curious to focus on the events unfolding on the tabletop below. The performance too was delicately constructed; numbered tags discovered during the show guided the tailor in his actions, which included a short ‘Intermission’ for beer and soft rock. A range of hand and glove puppets were revealed and were both made and unmade before our eyes, all perfectly part of the conceit of the environment. An inspired vivisection of a greedy glove puppet who had swallowed one of his companions and whose hastily buttoned mouth quickly converted him into a cushion to be dissected by the tailors variety of tools finally revealed a cavernous stomach hole that opened to the sewing machine pedal far below. Once pressed, the word ‘Fin’ sprung to life on the sewing machine’s cloth. Fifteen minutes of wonder which drew out the simple, magical precepts at the heart of puppetry’s art.
On a more ambitious scale, Montreal company Theatre de L’Oiel’s The Star Keeper, hit the Gardner Arts Centre with an epic set and epic adventure story. The dramaturgy of the piece seemed a throwback to dated theories of children’s theatre, with the characters and scenarios enormously oversimplified to the point of being ciphers moving through an almost hallucinogenic environment. The ‘Aah’ factor was heavily overused with the character of the inexplicably fallen star and the little worm who tries to return it to the sky - and the exclusively synthesised soundtrack was simply naff. However, the puppetry…the puppetry compensated for much of this and the freewheeling story allowed a great variety of showcases for this. Rod puppets moving through water, drifting in the current, tap-dancing marionette spiders, delicately articulated giant wasps and mermaids with beautifully wafting hair complimented some ingenuous touches of design which consistently lifted the tone of the whole. A feast for the eyes at least.
More challenging was Adios Nonino, a one-night offering from Majorca's A Cel Obert at the Sallis Benney, which used puppetry to release the dreams and fears of four passengers waiting in the no-mans land of a nameless station. This was a rich scenario whose possibilities were beautifully explored by the company. The emphasis of the piece was particularly theatrical, with strong physical ensemble work from the four performers creating the ambience and backbone of the piece whilst the episodes of fantasy explored character and emotional depth. A range of puppets were employed: a wizened dwarf rod puppet who presided over the ceremonies to come; dancing potato-heads whose inner disco beats were liberated by a symbolic needle/knife jabbed in the side of the head; and clothes who variously transformed to become a fantasy lover and a tragically lost child. The puppetry was well handled with each episode distinct in energy and rhythm but theatrically married to the whole. This was a relatively simple piece performed on a bare stage with the varied, haunting soundtrack mixed live with the action. However, the expert handling of all elements involved lifted it to an hour which brought both puppets and performance as a whole to vibrant life.
Visions remains a hugely important festival in the puppetry calendar and a unique opportunity for British audiences to experience some of the most innovative international action in the sector. These were only four of this year’s offerings, but give some taster of the important work performed by the festival in showcasing enormous diversity and invention offered to performance-makers by puppetry. And Visions’ commitment to visual theatre and performance firmly sites puppetry within one of the fastest growing and sexiest forms in the international arena: exactly where it should be…
More Visions reviews to come in the next e-dition of Animations Online - Watch this space!

Moby Duck
Iaggi Bodari – The Story Bundle
Lyric Theatre Studio, Hammersmith

Reviewed by Chris Abbot

As the excited half-term family groups started to arrive outside the studio entrance, one of the cast appeared and began greeting the children. Stooped beneath an enormous wooden frame full of interesting objects, she roamed around the café area, to the delight of the children and the barely-disguised horror of the locals who had popped in for a quick lunch. She then led the audience inside and the play began in a setting of delicately decorated banners (rather lost on this large stage), books, pottery jars and a bamboo screen.
The three performers were focused throughout on their audience, one responsible for the traditional Korean music and the other two telling the story and operating the puppets. For much of the performance there was considerable concentration in the auditorium, despite the complexities of the traditional quest and three questions story. The performers did, however, enter to loud drumming, which was enough to finish the experience for one young audience member, who fled in terror with his hands over his ears. He later came back but didn’t stay for long as the initial cacophony had just been too much for him. This was a great shame as most of the show was quiet, thoughtful and nowhere near as overpowering. Two stories were told, with one serving as an interlude within the other. This almost worked, but the change in puppet styles seemed to jar, and the second story seemed to break the flow of the main one. Although both acting performers operated the puppets, only one of them provided all the voices. He did this well, with good differentiation of character, but it seemed a little strange that his female colleague was mute for much of the time. The puppets were beautifully made although quite similar to each other, apart from the excellent (and well-manipulated) snake who later achieved his aim of turning into an impressive golden dragon. The fan as a crane might have worked if the audience had been told what a crane was, but most would have been unaware of its bird meaning. Moby Duck are to be commended for the research which was evident in the performance and the air of authenticity that surrounded it.

RSC and the Little Angel Theatre

Venus and Adonis
The Little Angel, Islington

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

The heavily literary material of Venus and Adonis presents a challenge in performance. Lengthy in description and poetic in its leaps from the real to the extendedly metaphorical, previously-staged incarnations of Shakespeare’s earliest poem have taken the form of masques using extravagant images to counterbalance the elaborate verse. However, although Gregory Doran and Steve Tiplady have labelled this recent collaboration ‘A Puppet Masque’, the puppet performances ensure that this adaptation far exceeds the aesthetic bias of that form with both substance and style combining to make an extraordinary theatrical experience.
The performance showcased the rich and varied potential of a number of puppetry forms, with a marionette exchange between Shakespeare and his patron the Earl of Southampton, alongside a cameo from Queen Elizabeth herself appropriately framing the performance within the gilt proscenium arch at the show’s opening. The piece was quick to break free of both strings and arch however, with the main narrative taking place on a table top downstage where the Bunraku figures of the protagonists expertly humanised the literary tale. Beyond this, muscular puppets danced and ran down the aisle, the pros arch itself became animate in a superbly macabre evocation of the poem’s relationship with death as well as love, and shadows were used to create sinister imaginings and moments of filmic perspective on the action. The puppets - overall design by Lyndie Wright and made by a team of five - were fleshy, human figures, both sensual and frail. The manipulation from Michael Bayliss, Rachael Leonard, Lynn Robertson Bruce and Sarah Wright (with Nele de Craecker) was faultless in its complicity, the puppeteers' presence effaced (apart from the audiences intermittent awareness of their skilful handling of the puppets) and the characters themselves engagingly real, independent figures whose relationship to text, audience and even narrator was a subtly changing and consummately human one.
The performance’s relationship to the text was more dynamic than any human actors could have achieved: the puppets able to inhabit and realise every nuance of the text as it swung from pathos to parody, erudite to erotic. The audience was entranced simultaneously by the craft of both language and manipulation. This successful collaboration between text and puppetry mirrors the rich and important collaboration between the two companies involved: the show’s critical success has brought puppetry to new audiences at the same time as bringing new audiences to the Little Angel.
The RSC’s decision to work with a professional puppetry company stands in stark contrast to the choices made by the National Theatre last year and with the resulting recognition of what truly accomplished puppetry can offer, could this be a turning point in the theatre industry’s relationship to the art-form?



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