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edition 35: autumn 2011

An Unmissable Occasion

Penny Francis visits the big and bold Charleville World Festival 2011

It was quite a festival: the puppet theatre equivalent of Edinburgh’s cornucopia. The brochure was daunting, with hundreds of performances listed, the booking arrangements convoluted, all the hotels full. I was there for only four days at the beginning, but soon realized this was an unmissable occasion (though only if your mobility was in good working order). The need to run between theatre, official and social meetings was never stronger, and the atmosphere of excitement even extended to the town residents – not always the case.

The occasion celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the festival, the thirtieth anniversary of the Institut International de la Marionnette, and the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the School ‘ESNAM’, the École Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette. All three reasons for great pride, all supreme in their field: the Festival is the monster showcase, the Institute is the acknowledged world hub of the arts of puppetry, the School can boast an unprecedented string of successes in its developments (from next year it will have its own building) and its graduates. To crown the event, the Minister of Culture came and was given a champagne reception, as were many of us. He announced the opening and funding of a permanent theatre for puppetry in Paris, and pledged ongoing support for the Charleville initiatives. (I felt myself going greener and greener with envy – if only we could achieve such valuation of the art form in Britain!)

All the shows I wanted to see were full, but somehow I managed to get into six or seven. The astonishing thing (to me, comparing my experiences of past festivals) was that all were enjoyable, original, well played, and well chosen by the festival director Anne-Françoise Cabanis. This year Britain was represented by puppet companies new to this festival: Raven Kaliana, Folded Feather, Rouge 28, Puppet State and Shona Reppe, for example, as well as old hands Rod Burnett, Gavin Glover and Green Ginger.

The outstanding production for me – and I do hope Britain will see it as soon as possible – was by Duda Paiva, an artist who has appeared more than once in the London International Mime Festival. I had not much appreciated his work before, but this one, called Bastard!, bowled me over, because of the rigour of the skills on view, the excellence of the craftsmanship in every element of the production. I’m referring to the performance of Duda Paiva himself, his almost acrobatic physicality, his impeccable manipulation of the life-sized floppy puppet characters, and the brilliance of their construction. Duda Paiva evidently has the training of a dance and circus performer.

The scenography – made for a wide stage – showed a wilderness of rubbish set against a projected cyclorama of moving images. The story concerns a bespectacled, suited man who finds himself in this messy hell of the rejected, where he meets a couple of its residents, naked, hopeless, who detain him by various stratagems, until bit by bit he finds himself discarding his ‘earthly’ persona and growing more and more like them. The female puppet has no legs, and there is a very clever and amusing sequence when she demands a loan of the man’s legs, because she had once been a dancer and needs to dance again. He adheres to the puppet in such a way that her body does indeed appear to be dancing with his legs. The story isn’t completely satisfying, but it is original and engaging, and all in all the production is a triumph.

A Russian-Finnish production of Bluebeard performed mainly by animated garments was suitably ghostly and sinister; another Russian show used mask and masking tape to depict most vividly an old crone in her lonely room, looking for her lost cat. It was played by an attractive young woman, Polina Borisova, convincingly disguised and brilliantly observed. Beguiling, moving, clever.

Frank Söhnle of Germany gave us a taster of his new show, Handspring won plaudits for their Woyzeck on the Highveld, and I saw two fine shadow shows both of which introduced me to the idea of the human player in silhouette masked only by a large cut-out head. These were not puppets, not animated objects or figures, but there were plenty of other objects and even characters that were.

Bruno Pilz will be heard of again. He played a tiny five-minute show for two spectators, two puppets and the airborne spirit of a dead character. A mirror effect transferred the image of the spectators to the other side of the stage picture: the watchers watched. Ingenious.

Major successes of the festival were those by Philippe Genty’s company Voyageurs Immobiles (inelegant translation: Unmoving Travellers), and the Forman Brothers (Czech Rep.), but I could not see them. There is far more to write about and to celebrate, not least the record numbers of punters who streamed into the squares, the theatres, the restaurants. Even the street shows I glimpsed seemed a cut above those of other years.

World puppetry has come a long way in the fifty years of the Festival of Charleville-Mézières.

P.S. There will be more on Charleville in British UNIMA’s magazine Puppet Notebook. If you come to its AGM and lecture (by John Bell) on 4 November 2011 at the Little Angel you could become a member and pick up a copy!

Charleville World Festival 2011 took place 16-25 September 2011.


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