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Watch out, there’s a puppet about!

Dorothy Max Prior sees The Sultan’s Elephant and reflects on the power of large-scale puppetry in public spaces

The first lovely summer’s day of 2006, a sparkling Friday in early May, and I am at a reception in London’s Pall Mall. The occasion is the Independent Street Arts Network launch of the UK season of street arts events, and we are kicking off with a big one – in fact, the biggest. For this day has been chosen as it coincides with The Sultan’s Elephant, a four-day event presented by French company Royal de Luxe which sees the closure of much of central London to make way for an extraordinary piece of outdoor art. And the extent to which this event has been embraced and accommodated by the capital city is a landmark occasion; not least because it is art, not sport or royalty, which is bringing in the crowds and literally stopping the traffic – producers Artichoke have somehow pulled off miracles which include the exclusion of cars from Trafalgar Square and The Mall (usually only the Queen gets this honour) and the removal of traffic lights along the main routes.

And who is all this in honour of? Well, now you ask – two puppets! For although much has been made (quite rightly) of this event as a seminal moment in the history of UK street arts presentation, it must also be noted as a marvellous milestone for puppetry.

As we leave the reception and head for the sunshine and crowds outside, we learn that one of those puppets has already taken up occupation, in fact has been resident in the city since the previous evening. A giant – no, that’s not a big enough word – a ginormous mechanical elephant is snoozing in Horseguard’s Parade off Whitehall (the large square where the Trooping of the Colour takes place). This is The Sultan’s Elephant, a creature big enough to accommodate a house (and indeed there are balconies and windows in his side – the design apparently inspired by the Town Hall in Calais). As he slumbers you can see the movement of his breath: there is no off-stage in this show – everything that happens over the four days can be viewed by the public and as much attention is paid to the elephant’s sleeping time as any other aspect of his existence. His ears are my favourite part: great flaps of brown leather that move gently and organically.

Meanwhile, back at Pall Mall, in Waterloo Place to be precise, something, we are told, is about to happen…
Embedded in the road is a crashed space-rocket pod, a brown wood-and-metal container that has an egg-like quality. The tarmac is cracked, the pod sitting at a rakish angle. There’s a curtained porthole in the pod suggesting that something or someone is in there. We hear the sound of loud music coming from a distance, intensifying as a large truck-cum-carnival-float appears from around the corner. A frisson of excitement passes through the crowd, who look to the pod in expectation.

Although I know (an ‘in my head’ sort of knowing) what is going to happen next, I’m not prepared for the impact. What enfolds before my eyes is one of the purest proofs of the power of puppetry that I have ever witnessed (and am ever likely to, I’m sure). A large team of manipulators dressed in jaunty red jackets approach the pod; there’s an overhead crane and a tall ladder goes up against the pod. A hatch is opened, a manipulator disappears inside and the crane and pulleys crank into action, pulling the lid open.

From the pod Le Petit Géant rises up, a girl puppet in a green dress and white ankle socks who, although she towers above the crowd, has an air of gentle childhood innocence that keeps her firmly placed as a ‘little’ girl. She has black hair that moves gently in the breeze, and enormous eyes that slowly close and open, her beautiful eyelashes sweeping down and up. She takes a while to find herself in this strange new territory, looking over the gathered crowd with a slow turn of the head, her eyes seeming to come into clear focus as she takes in her surroundings. The machinery – cranes, wires, ropes, pulleys – is fully visible. The large number of manipulators are clearly in sight above, behind and around her. There is no attempt to hide the business of animating this giant marionette, yet she is alive. We believe with total conviction, and our hearts reach out to her. All eyes in the large crowd are drawn to hers, and it seems that everyone feels, as I do, that they have made personal contact with an extraordinary being.

Now the girl sets off; down Pall Mall towards Trafalgar Square she goes, left right left right, accompanied by her team of operators (some of whom have to walk backwards) and the carnival music-makers on the truck. She’s off to meet The Sultan’s Elephant.

I decide I want to be with the elephant when she arrives to meet him, so nip through the edge of St James’ Park to his enclosure. The park is full of happy people looking towards the elephant with smiles on their faces. How extraordinary to have this relaxed festival atmosphere in the capital, it feels more like Spain than England! The Sultan’s Elephant is up and about – as I approach I’m shocked by his height. I’d seen the pictures but somehow had no idea what 40-foot of puppet pachyderm looks like when it’s in front of you, trumpeting loudly. Each enormous leg has a little box-seat in which an operator sits. There are people on the balconies in the elephant’s side.

Who knows how many people it takes to keep this creature on the road? The elephant walks in a great circle around the enclosure; every so often the head goes back, the trunk is raised and a great shower of water jets towards the crowd who all squeal like excited children in a birthday party splash-pool. The pounding music heralds the arrival of Le Petit Géant, and around the corner she comes. The moment of meeting and greeting between the two is poignant and gently amusing as the elephant’s enormous trunk at first tentatively sniffs the newcomer, then envelops the girl in a loving hug…

The presenting company, Royal de Luxe, were hardly known in Britain until this fabulous event in May, but are a renowned company with an extraordinary body of work to their name. Founded in 1979 by director Jean Luc Courcoult, they have performed in front of thousands of spectators throughout Europe and in Africa and China. The Sultan’s Elephant, which premiered in France in 2005, is the fifth of these spectacular shows, all of which involve giant puppet figures. This latest show was inspired by the work of Jules Verne: ‘His were the only novels I stole from bookshops’ claimed Courcoult in an interview with Jean-Christophe Planche.

The shows share a simple premise – an animal or giant arrives in town and lives its life, going about its business for a few days. An earlier example is Les Chasseurs de Girafes, in which a big box appears, and after a day or so opens to reveal a mother and baby giraffe. The power of each show is in universal human emotions which are evoked by the extraordinary skills of the animators in operating the mechanical people and creatures, and in the interactions that take place between passers-by and puppets. The dynamic of each event is similar, in that it starts quietly and slowly, with (hopefully) no spoiler publicity in the host town media (rumour has it that there was some disquiet in the Royal de Luxe camp about the too-detailed coverage with images in the UK broadsheets on the first full day of the London appearance). And the word then spreads… And so the show builds over the four days or so of occupation – the culmination of each show in effect created by the audience momentum, the numbers of which swell with each passing day.

That the shows are free and on the streets is an important factor to Courcoult: ‘I am proud that the shows we produce are financed by taxes’ he says, ‘it seems fitting and beautiful that some tax money is dedicated to popular culture. By putting on the show in the public arena and free of charge I can reach people as they are, whereas in traditional theatres you only meet those who have dared cross the threshold.’

This philosophy is one that seems very much in keeping with many other artists and companies who have chosen to create large-scale puppetry performance on the streets. An English company who espoused that same philosophy for the almost-four-decades of their existence is Welfare State International, who are sadly shutting up shop in 2006. Unlike Royal de Luxe, who we could say make work which is intrinsically political in its very existence in public spaces, rather than engaging with overtly political subject matter, Welfare State (founded in 1968) stated its intention from the start as an endeavour predicated on ‘participatory socialism’ (director John Fox, quoted in his autobiography Eyes on Stalks) and they often chose to meet politics head-on in shows such as Raising The Titanic (performed at LIFT 1983) which Fox described in the above-mentioned book as ‘ a ritualised rejection of Western capitalism.’

Although WSI made their mark with the creation of this and similar large-scale static spectacles, which famously incorporated giant animated structures and pyrotechnics, another vital strand of their work has been the re-inventing of the Northern European carnival traditions of lantern walks and processions, using giant sculptural puppets and structures made of withies (hazel sticks) and tissue paper lit from within – a wonderful reinterpretation of the humble paper lanterns that German and French children carry along in procession for the Martinmas festival of early winter.

The far-reaching influence of Welfare State, and specifically their effect upon large-scale puppetry and animation within UK street arts, cannot be fully catalogued: an enormous number of emerging artists worked with them as makers and/or performers, and many of these have gone off to form companies who have also made a significant contribution. A few names from the Welfare family tree: Julian Crouch, who went on to form Improbable, their outdoor show Sticky being a wonderful example of large-scale object animation (in their case, using Sellotape!); Les Sharpe who formed London’s finest Emergency Exit Arts, who have taken up the challenge of creating large-scale processional work – their Runga Rung, incidentally, also features a giant elephant; the Brighton-based celebratory theatre company Same Sky who sprung from the Welfare loins and took lantern festivals into a new dimension with their Burning the Clocks winter solstice event.

Welfare State’s own starting points go back to 1965, when John Fox first saw Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre, who had been brought from America to the UK by Oval House to enact A Man Says Goodbye to his Mother. Seeing this anti-war show acted out on a grey and drizzly south London street corner, Fox had his epiphany moment: ‘It was the trigger that inspired me to start Welfare State International.’

Bread and Puppet Theatre, who originally plied their trade in New York City before decamping to rural Vermont, can be seen as the dada and mama of large-scale puppetry in the streets. Although their work included work of many different scales, and although (as in the above mentioned show that inspired John Fox) they made work that was presented as, in Schumann’s words ‘stationary agitational puppet shows’ and street interventions, it is their large-scale parades, most of which had a political motivation, for which they are most renowned.

In an essay called Louder Than Traffic, John Bell (who performed with the company) says: ‘Bread and Puppet Theatre has been a distinct, unique presence in twentieth-century American theatre because of its grounding in three consistent ideas: an embrace of puppet and mask theatre… an explicit acceptance of political content… a persistent desire to operate outside the strictures of commercial entertainment…’

Big characters on stilts (often satirical representations, such as a 12-foot-tall Uncle Sam), great painted banners in bold blacks and reds, giant skeleton puppets, skull masks, carnivalesque giant papier-mâché heads… these were employed in anti-Vietnam War demos and anti-nuclear events, then later at pro-community gardens parades and celebratory Halloween processions. For Schumann, the reclaiming of public spaces was an essential part of the work: ‘I decided to take my painting and sculpture into the street and make a social event out of it and out of that grew my puppet theatre.’

Like many artists who have followed in their path, Bread and Puppet Theatre’s choice of puppet, mask and strong visual imagery has been crucial to their choice to perform in the streets rather than in theatres and other dedicated arts spaces. A trip to any major UK street arts festival will show that this heritage is alive and well and manifesting itself in many different ways: from the whole-body-mask style of Bim Mason’s Big Heads walkabouts and Neighbourhood Watch International’s enormous Dali and Gala ‘balloon people’ stilt-walkers to Horse+Bamboo’s banners, flags and large-headed puppets to Whalley Range All Stars giant Pig with suckling piglets (audience members who poke their heads inside the Pig, wearing wiggly piggy tails). And there’s more, so much more…
Over to Peter Schumann once again:

‘Puppet theatre is the theatre of all means. Puppets and masks should be played in the street. They are louder than the traffic… they scream and dance and hit others on the head and display life in its clearest terms.’
Whether it’s the dancing skeletons of Bread and Puppet parading down the streets, the magnificent withie-and-tissue creatures of Welfare’s lantern parades sailing across the skies, or the gentle giants and animals of Royal de Luxe’s magical world emerging from corners of our public squares to enchant passers-by, puppets on the street have a unique role to play in the creation of a theatre that is genuinely egalitarian, that is political in its very existence, regardless of whether artists take a consciously political stance, and which does indeed, in so many varied and beautiful ways, display life in its clearest terms.

The Sultan’s Elephant will next appear in Antwerp (Belgium) 6 – 9 July and then in Calais at the end of September and Le Havre at the end of October. The quotes from Jean Luc Courcoult are taken from an interview with Jean-Christophe Planche (2005) which can be found at

John Fox quotes are taken from Eyes on Stalks, Fox J (Methuen 2002)

See this issue of Animations for a commentary on the last ever gig by Welfare State International

Peter Schumann and John Bell quotes are taken from the essay Louder Than Traffic by John Bell, which appeared in Radical Street Performance ed. Cohen-Cruz J (Routledge London 1998)

To find out more about UK street arts festivals and events, see

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