Know What I Like
Francis on Reviewing Puppetry
been roving the world for some years in search of good
productions which include puppetry, it occurred to me
that I had not recently read any articles that proposed
a set of criteria for making evaluations of this kind
of theatre. As one who regularly makes and transmits the
said evaluations I’d like to have at least a few
of these criteria listed, for myself as much as for other
would-be critics. They would be useful as a yardstick,
though hardly a checklist.
An editor of any journal containing reviews must decide
on their purpose. In newspapers, they are both a guide
to quality and content and an entertainment; in a trade
journal like Animations Online they are not only a guide
but also a record for aficionados, historians and academics.
Therefore, it seems to me appropriate that a descriptive
ingredient be included. But more than a description is
needed: there needs to be some critical evaluation - and
it is pondering the nature of that evaluation - subjective
or objective, instinctive or informed - which raises interesting
Only too naturally our feeling for a show, a personal
enjoyment or distaste, dictates our first reaction, and
no matter the criteria, our judgement will usually hold
to that. It’s the I Know What I Like factor.
For instance, I find many people have a really sweet tooth
which they bring to their feelings about a piece. Black
comedy, violence, explicit sex are probably anathema to
them. Others, like me, don’t enjoy anything that
smacks too much of sentimentality or an overly rosy view
of humanity; nevertheless I’ll come out of a feel-good
movie like Love Actually, or Finding Nemo - well - feeling
But I am increasingly worried and bored by the standard
post-show 'What did you think of it?’ ‘I thought
it was really good’ exchange. When asked ‘Why?
What was really good about it?’ many people find
it very difficult to give a satisfactory answer. As usual,
I hope to get a reaction to my ideas, so please don’t
imagine I’m laying down any laws. A debate would
At the international festival in Rijeka (Croatia) last
month, I saw only two productions which I rated very highly.
One was an extensively adapted version of Moliere’s
The Miser, and the other a Japanese mime and object play
called Triangle - Four Seasons. They were both exceptionally
well received and brought standing ovations and demands
for encores. Why, it’s your turn to ask, did you
think them good?
To start with, the conception or the idea of each was
original, if not exactly groundbreaking, and second, the
execution in both cases was superb. The spectators felt
that an interesting basic idea had been excellently delivered.
A text springs from an idea. For my present purpose the
text is the elaboration of the conception in terms of
words or a storyboard which the show interprets, and in
both cases the text was inspired. Moliere is in any case
inspired, but there are dangers in altering any of his
plays, be it abridged or adapted. In this version of The
Miser the adapted text served the idea brilliantly: this
Miser was hoarding not gold but water, in a world where
water had become the most precious commodity. We can all
identify with that. Two actors played with small, roughly
made tabletop figures whose bodies were pieces of cloth
and whose heads were bath and basin taps held by a hand
under the cloth.
For Triangle - Four Seasons there were no words, just
two players onstage with a vast array of triangular shapes
(painted polystyrene, mostly - very light) in bright colours
and many sizes, all constantly rearranged into a dynamic
narrative loosely linked to the seasons. The triangles
transformed into a myriad of objects, from flowers and
butterflies to landscapes and space rockets, with the
two performers adding humour and mimed commentary to the
show’s richness of invention.
Unity of style in the design and performing elements of
a show might be the next consideration. Each of these
two productions had an understanding of sculptural and
pictorial values (the fine art element - a sine qua non
of the puppet theatre) making for a unity which satisfied
the spectators’ sense of aesthetics. The design
and scale of the settings and lighting, the sound and
music, merged with the performance element as part of
a whole, without jarring or discordance. The puppets and
acting style applied to The Miser was satiric caricature,
the scenography minimalist. In Triangle the aesthetic
was that of simplicity: bright colours, clean outlines,
innocent play. Careful choreography contributed to the
arrangement of the stage pictures.
Finally, as a criterion of value of any piece, any judgement
must include the pivotal question of craft, that part
of the preparation of any show which is a crucial part
of its execution. It is the heading least likely to be
contested. The standard of the execution was excellent
in both these productions, unquestionably. All five performers
were highly trained and skilled (though the actors in
The Miser should strengthen the voice). They were capable
of establishing a relationship with their spectators which
drew the two groupings, company and audience, close together.
Complicity it’s sometimes called.
The on-stage pianist who accompanied the Triangle piece
was technically accomplished and super-sensitive to the
mood and the action; and I have rarely seen a better economy
or expressivity of movement as in the female mime artist,
while her male partner excelled in puppet manipulation.
On all counts - personal enjoyment, originality of conception,
interesting dramaturgy or text, unity of style, aesthetic
satisfaction, a high level of execution, professional
craftsmanship, high production values - the shows could
be rated well above average.
At a festival in Lleida, Catalunya, I recently had the
great pleasure of seeing two first-rate productions for
young people, both of which won a prize for best festival
show. It might be worth applying my newly expressed criteria
to them both, to see if my list is long enough or whether
there are other considerations affecting a reviewer’s
judgement that should be included.
This second pair, one for children, the other for teenagers,
were first of all remarkable for the idea or message contained
in them. The first, Embolic a la Granja (Trouble on the
Farm) was about the fear and distrust of strangers, and
the other, Operacio A.V.I. (Operation A.V.I), tackled
the problem, in terms of humans and ancient cultural values,
of growing old and/or outdated. Both fears were resolved
to leave the audience feeling very good indeed (on the
available evidence of smiles and loud applause). While
hardly original as dramatic themes, they are not often
served up for children and teenagers, and in both cases
the text was exemplary.
The execution also elevated both shows into the First
Class category. Each was consummately played by male clown-puppeteers
and actor-puppeteers respectively, whose level of skill
(some poor mouth-synch in show two apart) was high. The
style of Trouble on the Farm was comedic, a humour applied
with a broad brush, which extended into the clowning,
the puppets, the scenography and the music, and was entirely
suitable for conveying a serious theme to a young audience.
Unity of style was perfect.
The aesthetic of Operation A.V.I. was gentle caricature,
with a tender, almost rueful core. The inclusion of a
villainous scientist and his machine which restored youth
to people, stories and animals provided the excitement,
while the hero was a sort of universal Grandpa not at
all desirous of regaining his youth. The piece had depth
and humanity. Didacticism was entirely avoided. These
were two fine texts that, respectively, children and teenagers
could identify and grapple with.
As for the level of craftsmanship, it was a joy to experience,
almost equally fine in both cases. The puppets were superbly
made and operated, and there was especial pleasure in
the organisation of the stage space in both shows. The
scenery sprung surprises throughout both stories, transforming
itself into several areas of action in endlessly inventive
ways. This evidenced the application of enormous care
and skill (with no fat budgets, I suspect) and of a respect
for young people who were here offered the very best in
every part of the production.
Is the inclusion of generous, human values another criterion
to add to the list? Academically, no; but the spirit which
informs a show is sometimes a palpable thing, part of
the good or bad feeling generated in the theatre and carried
away by the spectator.
The highest praise of any reviewer must be reserved for
that rarest of productions wherein he or she finds herself
in the presence of artistry. There are great difficulties
in writing criteria for the recognition and evaluation
of true art or the true artist. The reader is welcome
It would be unfair not to give details of the four shows
described above. Having praised them so highly they deserve
to be identified, even in a general essay like this:
The Miser is presented by the Spanish company Tabula Rassa
and the performers are O. Benoit and M. Gallardo. Scenography:
X. Erra and X. Sallo. Tabletop operation, actors in view.
Triangle - Four Seasons has as its producing company Etsuko
World (see their website); the performers are Chica and
Ogawa Kosaku. The pianist is Rin Heitetsu. Director: Kinosuke
Tsubame. Objects, mime, hands-on puppetry.
Trouble on the Farm is produced by the Spanish company
La Baldufa, who are actually based in Lleida, the place
of the festival where they won a prize, and was played
by Carles Benseny, Enric Blasi, Emiliano Pardo and Carles
Pijuan. The puppets are by Carles Pijuan. Large animal
figures, both hands-on and table-top.
Operation A.V.I. is produced and played by the Farres
Brothers, Pep and Jordi,. Based near Barcelona in Odena.
Scenery and puppets are by the great Alfred Casas, and
the director is Jordi Palet. Small table-top figures.