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•The National Puppet Theatre of Vietnam - Vietnamese Water Puppetry
Greenwich and Docklands Festival, July 2004
Reviewed by Cath Connolly

•The Ding Foundation - Unexploded Bomb
BAC, July 2004
Reviewed by Beccy Smith

•Puppetry and Object Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2004
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

The National Puppet Theatre of Vietnam - Vietnamese Water Puppetry

Greenwich and Docklands Festival, July 2004

Reviewed by Cath Connolly

This was a rare opportunity to see the ancient art of water puppetry, presented by The National Puppet Theatre of Vietnam. The intimate setting of the Royal Observatory Gardens created a perfect natural backdrop to a striking set, consisting of a red and gold temple/pagoda structure above a large rectangular pool of water. A large flag fluttered atop the temple roof and flickering lights reflected in the water.

There was a lively, friendly atmosphere among the audience and prior to the performance there was a stall set out with handmade traditional souvenirs which was doing a brisk trade: little carved wooden figures of fishermen, reed pipes and lions with clapping mouths among the array of goods. The audience was a mixed group with the emphasis on families, and the Vietnamese community seemed to be well-represented. There were lots of children running around, excited by the outdoor setting and the late hour, with the show not going up until after 9:30pm. Adjacent to the stage was a platform with six or seven traditional musicians and Cheo singers (the singers were earlier selling souvenirs) and as they took their places we all stood up to see the start of the show. More brightly coloured flags popped up around the set and this signalled the beginning of the entertainment.

Teu, a traditional character of the buffoon, comes out and introduces the performance, which consisted of eleven short pieces. Aspects of traditional Vietnamese rural life were interspersed with pieces featuring magical creatures from myth and fantasy depicting universal themes. Graceful long- necked phoenix portrayed a beautiful and poignant love story, their movements slow and sensuous. The dragons, their heads and bodies reminiscent of sea-serpents, chased each other around the pool, spraying golden rain from their mouths as they battled for supremacy. The puppets wove ever-increasing circles and more and more intricate patterns around the pool and each other without ever colliding or getting entangled. Snakes chased lions and dragons, the slickly-manipulated puppets seeming extremely sinuous and lifelike in their movements. The faster the action on top of the water, the more the surface of the water rippled and fractured, creating glittering and dazzling myriad reflections from the lights and the fireworks. The audiences reaction was to gasp in awe and excitement as the battle scenes reached a climax and the victor emerged.

The dance of the Fairies was a charming and vivacious scene, beautiful and ethereal figures with outstretched arms danced with each other and around the water, accompanied by the Cheo singers which added to the otherworldly feel of the piece. There was magic in the way that the puppets appeared to cross each other without mishap or mistake. With no translation of the song words available, we had no way of knowing if the words described any of the action onstage, but each piece spoke eloquently enough visually for us to understand the meaning behind the action.

The rural scenes were more sedate and showed human figures almost childlike in features, all smiling and jolly as they performed tasks in the deltas and fields. Men ploughed with buffaloes, women planted rice, men fished with long poles and baskets for both fish and frogs. Brightly coloured long boats crammed full of men raced each other, all the while rowing furiously. Swimmers’ arms rotated above their heads as they moved through the water.

Presumably, the puppets’ arms are operated by strings. The puppets are constructed from carved wood, which is then painted in bright colours and varnished with waterproof lacquer giving them a highly polished appearance. The poles or rods which support the puppets must be very long as they extend quite far out into the pool at times. I was reliably informed that the puppets are very heavy and I suppose the water takes the weight for the puppeteers, adding to the reality of movement. The eight puppeteers are hidden behind bamboo screens, from which the puppets make their entrances and exits.

The evening was truly magical and offered us a rare glimpse of Vietnamese culture, albeit a family-friendly colourful spectacle that shows only the positive side of Vietnamese history and none of the harsher realities of rural life. The festival organisers are to be applauded for bringing the company over and, through their free ticket offer, making the event accessible to all.

The Ding Foundation - Unexploded Bomb
BAC, July 2004

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

The performance opens with a washing line set out in front of a house, which holds the clothes of small children and babies. As the puppeteers move onto the stage, they imbue these tiny people with mischief and fun, making you believe that the wind has brought the life of these children to their garments. There is an underlying emptiness to the stage however, which brings sadness, that the focus of the action is children who are missing and not children who are there. As we hear the effects of an aeroplane overhead, what begins as a child playing with a toy plane made from chair spindles dropping its tiny bombs adopts a sinister undertone, as a woman hurries to take the washing in before the threat from above is realised. It is a timely and moving impression capturing a period of great threat from invasion at home that resounds with current affairs. We watch as the mother character, outlined only by her brightly-coloured dress, lovingly handles the baby clothes.

We are taken next on a journey underground, where a boy discovers the titular unexploded bomb and works against the ticking clock to disarm it. Within this bomb he recovers the components of a wooden chair which when placed in the house, assembles itself and springs to life. Other wooden objects in the house animate as they become children once again, joining with remnants of fabric to play. As the action flows from scene to scene, the most arresting section of the performance, where sound and lighting is used effectively to create a sequence of still tableaux, uses a family of chairs to create a domestic drama. We are first drawn in by the way the large red chair approaches a plain wooden chair and its miniature copy in a charmingly humanistic way. It becomes apparent as these scenes are assembled, that the red chair is a threatening male who attacks the protective female and destroys the helpless child. Suddenly the isolation of the dressed childless mother in the house takes on a deeper significance.

While the whole piece was excellently controlled and executed with accomplished puppetry, the skill lay in the use of the reclaimed objects and the beautiful characterisations they achieved. This is not yet a fully structured performance. Despite that, most of the narrative and characters are well drawn and complete; the tension between very small, complete narratives doesn’t fully reconcile itself with a more impressionistic whole. The effectiveness of these images and the ingenuity of the puppeteers cannot be understated however, and with some more development, a competent and affecting piece could become a more powerful drama.

Puppetry and Object Theatre
the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2004

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

In one way or another, puppetry and object animation was well-represented in a number of high profile shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2004. It is, of course, a symptom of the way that puppetry is perceived by audiences that the tag Adult Puppetry has to placed on anything that isn't specifically aimed at children…
But Australian company Black Hole's Caravan is indeed an adult show by anyone's definitions. Presented at St Stephen's as part of the Aurora Nova Festival of International Visual Theatre - and billed as Puppets Meet Pulp Fiction - the show is a series of inter-related scenes about a 1950's carnival and its colourful characters… which include clowns and acrobats, a stripper and a number of dogs. There's blood and gore, severed limbs and on-stage masturbation - proof perhaps that puppets can do things that actors can't onstage?

The opportunity to play with scale is something that a number of puppet companies exploit - and Black Hole do this very well. There are tiny, highly detailed puppets (bum-sniffing dogs and howling cats); larger bunraku-style jointed puppets with rough unfinished surfaces (carnival workers who slouch, smoke, sulk and have sex) and there's a large, three-person-operated, raunchy showgirl puppet with a phallic devil tail. The role of the puppeteers/performers is one of the distinctive characteristics of the company's work - the action switches constantly not only in scale but also from flesh and blood performer to puppet. Thus, we start with a 'real' cabaret performer who treats us to a saucy hula-hoop act. The grimy fairground workers she meets up with are in-character puppeteers. The action moves to the puppets, but bounces back constantly so that in any one scene we could have puppet-on-puppet interaction, puppet-performer or performer-performer. Video projection is used to highlight the small intimate details (and there are times, believe me, when they are showing things you would really rather not witness) and the visual elements also include colour gel back projections and a number of quirky 2-D set pieces.
Also seen at Aurora Nova were the delightful Familie Floz. This German mask-theatre company create cleverly devised and beautifully delivered shows that combine the physicality of the theatre clown with the skill of the maker-animator. Their trademark whole-head masks remind us that puppetry is but one step removed from mask - a sister artform that developed from the same beginnings in ritual theatre.

They brought two shows to this highly regarded festival-within-the-festival. With perhaps a nod in the direction of Douglas Adams, Ristorante Immortale depicts the restaurant at the end of the universe - a limbo where no real customers ever come and the staff eternally replay the rituals of their work by day - by night acting out their dreams and desires. Utilitarian objects become percussion instruments; plates are juggled; laundry baskets and tablecloths are transformed to boats with sails or to a giant puppet and performer madonna-and-child.

This was a wonderful show - but it was surpassed by the company's new work Delusio. This time, the scene (another limbo world) is backstage at a theatre, where the technicians live and dream in the shadows of the onstage action. Such were the extraordinary range and number of masked characters - all brought to life with perfectly-observed and executed physical performances - that it was impossible to believe, when the company took their bows, that there were only three of them onstage. If this wasn't enough, Delusio featured what was quite likely the best bit of puppetry of its kind seen on a stage - the theatre's ghost, brought to life at the beginning and end of the show, is manipulated with tender loving care by all three of the company's creator/performers. Just how can a mask, a white nightie and a pair of hands hold so much poignancy? That's the magic of puppetry for you!

A rather different sort of approach to puppetry was seen at Pod Deco - a particularly brash and unpleasant cinema-turned-theatre venue that did nothing to provide an appropriate ambience for The Tiger Lilies. Their Punch and Judy is not so much a puppetry show as a show about puppetry that uses puppetry as one of its tools.

This is, in essence, a cabaret song-cycle with theatrical add-ons. Going back to the harsh and sadistic early versions of Mr Punch as reference material is a very good idea for this trio of musicians with a penchant for horrid tales, but as presented, the material was unbalanced in both dramaturgy and skill of execution. As the on-stage musicians featured in Shockheaded Peter, one might have hoped that the Tiger Lilies would have absorbed more from Improbable on the workings of visual and animated theatre. The show starts promisingly with the opening song - Martyn Jacques' falsetto vocals and the demented staccato rhythms of the snare drum feeding off each other. There are simple but effective visuals at this point: Jacques' shadow looms large to either side of the stage and behind him we see a film of our subject - Mr Punch. So far so good. We hear of Punch's sad childhood with a sicko mummy - illustrated with a very funny piece of film of a straight-jacketed puppet. And I like (in a perverse sort of way) the nasty Mr. Blobby blow-up Punch and Judy dolls that lumber on next to act out the happy couple's affair made consummate - with an outrageously tasteless rubber-doll birth scene. But it's downhill from here on. There are some truly awful acting scenes as Punch and Judy move on to actual human representation on stage; there are scenes that don't have anything much to do with anything else - and it all slips into an unsatisfying mish-mash. The Tiger Lilies are not helped by attempting to perform in a venue that had as much atmosphere as a late-night Mc Donalds - had this been set in a cabaret venue it may have stood more of a chance, with at least the songs seeing it through. There is the embryo of a good show in there somewhere - if only the Tiger Lils could let it breathe. Keep the songs, keep the on-film puppetry …chuck out most of the rest and it may yet work.

It is always good, when at the Edinburgh Fringe, to discover or be told about an unexpected gem - a show that wasn't on your list but one you make room for when friends insist that this is one you have to see. The show that filled that slot this year was by New International Encounter (NIE) and called My Long Journey Home (presented at The Pleasance). Based on the real-life experiences of one Andras Tomas, it's the story of a young Hungarian, a conscripted soldier who, through a misunderstanding, ends up imprisoned in a Russian mental hospital for more than fifty years. Hardly a jolly tale, then - but presented with a balance of humour and pathos that leaves the audience laughing and crying in equal measure. NIE are an Anglo-Czech company: young theatre-makers who are happy to use any means of expression to tell their tale. Thus, we have accomplished physical clowning, beautiful singing accompanied by on-stage accordion and simple but highly effective puppetry in the use of a little rag doll to represent Andras's young girlfriend. Four languages are mixed and mingled to explore the central theme of communication and miscommunication. Minimal costumes and props - a few different coats, a length of white muslin, a tin bath, a few guns and a few roses - are all that are needed. This is 'poor theatre' of the very best sort - a theatre crafted from a few odds and ends that relies primarily on the skills of this talented all-male ensemble. My Long Journey Home is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

One show that was on my list from the start was Montreal puppet company Soma International's Cabaret Decadanse, seen at the Metro Gilded Balloon Teviot. It has been previously reviewed in Animations (by Mark Down) when seen at the Canadian High Commission in London - but I feel a re-view is justified as the show has been substantially re-worked, with a very different role for the human compere character.
In essence, it's a series of lip-synched songs and dances superbly enacted by puppeteers Serge Deslauriers and Enock Turcotte, who animate their cast of puppet characters with a sensual and flowing skill that blurs the boundaries between flesh, bone, fabric and wood. The company's collective experiences - in puppetry of all sorts, dance and fashion design - has led to the creation of a show that utilizes all these skills to maximum effect. The influence of gay culture is also a strong element - the lip-synching female glamour pusses being a loving nod in the direction of drag - not to mention Konrad the transvestite puppet who ends the show in a glorious leggy entanglement with compere Dominique Therrien. The compere's role is not only to provide links (often sardonic reflections on puppetry itself) but also to act as an ironic counterpoint to the glamour and liveliness of the puppets - her colourless clothes, monotone voice and stilted walk making her more puppet-like than the stars of the show.

This is not a challenging or thought-provoking show - but it is not aiming to be. It is a good old-fashioned entertaining night out, created by a company whose highly competent levels of making and performing skills create an ambience that allows the audience to relax - confident that we are in safe hands. This puppet show for adults is proof that the pleasure principle is still an important factor in contemporary performance!

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