Skipton Puppet Festival 2011
Bob Frith and Alison Duddle of Horse + Bamboo double-team their way through Skipton '11
Bob Firth /
The weekend of Friday 23rd through to Sunday 25th of September was Skipton Puppet Festival weekend – the perfect meeting place for families, puppeteers, walkers and others taking a late summer break. A place and time to be reminded once again how well puppetry relates to such a wide audience – some of it as a kind of vernacular theatre, some experimental, some simply as entertainment. It's hard to imagine another form of theatre that crosses so many barriers and speaks, in so many ways, to individuals of all ages.
I missed Friday, and so my first show was What Does Red do on Thursday? at the Girls High School, a little way up the Gargrave Road, by Thalias-Kompagnons from Nuremberg in Germany. This was a relaxed 30-minute show – with Joachim Torbahn performing through the medium of paint on a semi-transparent screen, accompanied by the music of Ravel and Debussy, while announcing chapter headings for the journey taken by 'Red' (a blob of red paint) going on a kind of adventure rather like Paul Klee's concept of taking a line for a walk. At first the painting – of pathways between birds, cats, insects, castles, forests, flowers, looked very much like a Klee, but eventually, during 'Meeting Grown-Ups', much bigger circles of colour dominated the screen, and by Chapter 6 ('Red Learns to Swim') blue paint begins to run down the screen until a giant spiral sweeps it all up into a huge sun that wipes the traces of the earlier world away. It all ends at Chapter 7 – 'Little Red Had Fun'. The whole piece was, in several ways, rather two-dimensional, but still an extremely charming, almost meditative, experience – clearly enjoyed by the packed audience, and the children were focused throughout and had lots of fun too.
Then on to see Theatre Des Tarabates from Saint-Brieuc in France, with Polichinelle. Puppeteer Philippe Saumont explained in extremely broken but captivating English that our own Mr Punch shared a common heritage with Polichinelle, who was a Neapolitan (thus neither English nor French) and then went on to demonstrate just how this manifests itself. The show was great fun, with little stretchy chickens, mysterious moving mattresses; an odd caterpillar that I eventually realised was Dog (and really the same character as Mr Punch's Crocodile); Death and the inevitable Policeman. I particularly enjoyed the highly choreographed 'chase' episodes that utilised the whole booth in beautifully realised 'slow-motion' puppetry. Emerging from the Small Marquee into a Festival Hub – that was getting busier by the minute as people decided that the threatening weather was actually going to be kind to us – a huge crowd was gathered by the canal side, obviously enthralled by Cie Rue Barree with their Mario show, while a flock of Giant Sheep mooched slowly through the crowd.
After lunch at the Pie Shop it was on to Skipton Little Theatre, an atmospheric venue ten minutes walk from the Hub, for Grim/m/aces by Figurina from Budapest, Hungary – four Grimm stories told using, as it says in the programme, 'simple everyday objects'. But this was anything but simple – it had a strongly East European quality, exaggerated for me by the strange effect of muttering and explicating in Hungarian alongside and over an English-language voiceover. The storytelling often had a ritualistic quality, but was wonderfully witty at the same time, with an almost Svankmajer-like surrealism, using chipped enamel vessels, candles, cheese-graters and scrubbing brushes to tell us these familiar stories – and that odd bilingual soundtrack enhanced by harmonica, triangle, battered cymbal and kazoo. Great!
Back through the Hub where the canal basin widens to see Mark Whitaker's Festival!, a highly entertaining display of virtuosity (overheard: 'that was an official puppet clever thing!') as Chinese acrobats fight with sticks, tame a tiger, swop embroidered jackets, and ride a Temple Dog. A really lovely, compact entertainment – as the programme again rightly notes, a festival within a festival! Then round the corner, Prof. Geoff Felix and Punch and Judy, the British version of Polichinelle, and apparently 349 years old this year, as this P&J Prof told us all in his entertaining and instructive introduction. Punch and Judy doesn't always hit the mark for me, but this was suitably nightmarish and un-PC, I thought; a particularly nice 'baby' for Punch to throw downstairs.
As I prepared to move on to see Akseli Klonk, from Oulu, Finland, and 4 Skillful Brothers I again overheard a comment – this time that the group were 'a bit too Finnish for me'. So this whetted the appetite and, well, not knowing exactly what 'Finnish' is I waited with interest. The show was a narrated story told with weird kind-of dance moves – odd tics almost; inventive strange movements that only seemed to have a tangential relationship to the narrative, and accompanied by a mop and bucket and a vacuum cleaner and its attachments. Oh, and rubber gloves and J-cloths. Strange, oddly entertaining, perfect at 25 minutes, and probably best described as – well, very Finnish.
Then to round the day off, fish and chips and then back to the Girls High School for Urashima Taro by Rouge 28. I should declare an interest here as I worked on this show three years ago, but I hadn't seen it since, and I know that it was developed plenty over the intervening period. It's a confident and very beautiful show, brilliantly performed by Aya Nakamura, based on a Japanese folk legend. It was lovely for me to revisit the show and see Aya and Paul Piris, the director, again. It isn't perfect by any means – there are longueurs, and an unsettling mix of the obscure and the overstated, but it remains that rare thing, a powerful piece of theatre with a unique intensity and strangeness, standing beautifully and totally assured in its own world.
On Sunday I returned, hearing enthusiastic things from the puppeteers who'd been at the previous night’s Cabaret. I first went to see our own show Red Riding Hood, and then followed that by running down the road to catch the Festival Parade. Again the weather behaved impeccably, and everyone I met very much enjoyed this development at the Skipton Festival. The parade was a perfect size for the streets of the town and for the Hubsite too, where it ended up pushing through the crowds and circling the square on several deserved laps of honour.
/ Alison Duddle /
Arriving at the festival hubsite in Skipton around lunchtime on Saturday I was immediately struck by the volumes of people out on the streets having a great weekend watching puppet shows. What a lovely sight! And then by how many puppeteers there were, lurking in the crowds – watching, performing, but also just catching up with old friends. The weather was absolutely perfect, and the creation of a central puppet hub for all of the marquees, all of the free shows, and the ticket office, created a wonderful buzz of excitement. By this time the majority of the remaining shows for the weekend were sold out, but that didn’t deter hordes of happy puppet-watchers from hanging around in the sunshine, content with the marvellous free entertainment provided.
Knowing that I wouldn’t get to see everything, I enlisted the help of a very young puppet enthusiast. He really enjoyed seeing the Da Silva marionettes, adored the puppet parade with the giant sheep organised by the Handmade Parade team with Thingumajig Theatre (as did all of the enthralled watchers who lined the sides of the streets), but told me his most favourite thing was the free street theatre show Mario by Cie Rue Barree. I also saw this one, but had a less than perfect view, owing to the happy throngs of festival-goers keen to see any bit of puppetry that didn’t require a ticket. The show was sweet and funny, but the complicity of the performers, each of whom provided one arm and one leg of the puppet, was beautiful to watch – they dressed, and more impressively, juggled, as one.
Other free shows of note included Mark Whitaker’s beautifully puppeteered but accessibly silly Festival!. This show is a collection of vignettes using Chinese hand puppets, including some hand-achingly clever tricks such as puppets stealing each other’s costumes. In another marquee I enjoyed a wonderful puppet carving demonstration by Lenka Pavlinckova, whose skilled, intricate work was inspiring to passers-by and puppeteers alike. But for me, the thing I loved was the totally simple yet delightful sheep puppet, puppeteered by Melvyn Rawlinson, aka Farmer Jolly. Tiny children, who sometimes can be really unsettled by puppets, loved meeting her and tickling her under the chin. So simple – no story needed – yet beautifully done. I’m not the biggest fan of marionettes, but I was won over.
The range of shows on offer was really great. From the quirky and inventive object theatre Grim/m/maces by Figurina from Hungary, I went to Jack and the Devil's Purse by Angel Heart Theatre. The story at its heart – of what we choose to do with money, and how it can change a person’s life, is an interesting one, but the story itself was a bit drowned in drunkenness. The puppets were cleverly made – especially lovely fabric work – but I found it hard to care about any of them. However, one beautiful moment sticks in my mind: a slightly surreal wordless section, with a bizarre mechanical bird-like creature. I’m not sure what it was meant to be, but it was lovely, and I longed for more moments like it.
I didn’t make it to the Cabaret but heard great reports of it the next day – well done to Folded Feather for a popular late night show.
On Sunday the crowds were busier than the day before – the festival’s slick publicity machine (the organisers spending days driving brochures around to schools as far afield as Hebden Bridge – wow, well done!) really paid off.
Sneaking off from the get-in for our show, I saw a little of Old Mother Hubbard by Garlic Theatre, and wished I could have stayed for the whole show. Lovely glove puppet dog – very funny.
I can’t say too much about Horse + Bamboo’s Red Riding Hood, having made the show (hmm… exquisite... hmm), except that I enjoyed it, and so, apparently, did the lovely, packed appreciative audience.
Laku Paka’s show next door was a complete change in energy. The Bremen Town Musicians is such a lovely story about what happens to a motley crew of ageing animals that aren’t wanted any more, and Günter Staniewski brought real pathos and humour to the story as an ageing employee, recently retired, no longer needed. The show didn’t dwell for too long in the realm of pity, however. It had a really gentle energy, but the performer’s humour lifted the tone beautifully – the flea circus made from the animals’ fleas will stick in my mind, as will the hot water bottle ‘rubber robbers’ glove puppets.
There was clearly a bit of a wolf-fest over at the girl’s school (funny that they hang out there…), as the last show in the main space was also Red Riding Hood-related: Wolf Tales by Pickled Image. Hats off to them for an absolutely brilliant show. It was a riot from beginning to end. Dik Downey’s quick repartee had the audience in stitches, both in the mode of the hilariously actorly wolf and the crazy Welsh wheelchair-bound granny. It was beautifully put together and excellently performed, from the visual world of the shabby dressing room with its richly ‘crunchy’ aesthetic, to the set-piece jokes and the fresh and inventive interaction with the audience. It was the perfect show to finish up a really wonderful festival.
/ Alison & Bob /
Liz and Daniel Lempen have done an amazing job of pulling together a festival that, after just four editions, feels like a well-established jewel in the British puppetry scene. Puppeteers we chatted to said it was one of their favourite festivals to perform at, and performers are well looked after and get to meet lots of other puppeteers – a rare pleasure for many touring companies. It must be that their own long experience of touring, and of visiting other festivals, has given them a better understanding of what makes a nice place to perform. Long may it continue!