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Edition 35: Autumn 2011


REVIEWS: Autumn 2011
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/ Handspring Puppet Company, Woyzeck on the Highveld
/ The Tempest Puppet Music Show, The Isle is Full of Noises
/ Little Cauliflower, Street Dreams
/
DNA, The Frog Prince and Other Peculiar Tales from 'Terry Jones Fairy Tales'

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Handspring Puppet Company
Woyzeck on the Highveld
Silk Street Theatre, Barbican, London
10 September

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

Since their collaboration on the National Theatre’s Warhorse in 2007, in this country Handspring have become synonymous with large-scale, glamorous puppetry, with the West End’s energy and sweep. However, what this earlier production in some ways clarifies is that the incredible verisimilitude of the design and detail in the puppetry direction and performance are the key signifiers of Handspring’s artistic input. 

The puppets are undoubtedly the stars of the show here – compellingly detailed rod puppets, animated and voiced from behind a tall screen, their features lifelike enough to even pull off a brief close-up headshot. A tabletop downstage provides some variety in the style, and miniature rod shadows behind the screen whose monochrome figures integrate stylishly with the black and white charcoal drawings projected there complete what is, as a whole, an intriguingly eclectic puppet language. What all the puppetry shares is Adrian Kohler’s astonishingly realistic design and eloquently rich puppetry direction, performed here by a versatile cast of four who also perform live the dense, adapted text.    

Unfortunately, if you were looking for the majesty and drama of the National Theatre’s style, this production felt lacking (but in any case Buchner’s famously dense and fragmentary original hardly makes such promises). Handspring’s Woyzeck recasts Buchner’s grim industrial poverty to the Johannesburg townships of the 50s and it’s a comparison both apt and punchy for a South African audience still negotiating the closing years of apartheid. In England 2011, some aspects of this 1992 production were showing their age, though the poverty it depicts so casually still has the power to shock. But it seems hard now to conceive of a puppetry production sticking with such fidelity to a twin-stage structure that limits its range of movement to linear tabletop sequences. Reinforced by a stolidly repetitive score and lumpen blackout between each scene, the effect was a sort of rhythmical torpor that was quite enervating. Arguably this was intentional, recreating the bleak cries from Woyzeck’s soul of ‘on and on’ but it didn’t make for an enjoyable audience experience.

The show’s undeniable star was its most tenuously connected creation – a chubby, suicidal Rhino that ultimately defies its master’s demands for it to perform by shooting itself. An aesthetic ancestor of the giraffes of 2004’s Tall Horse and other, more famous, horses he was, ironically, a real crowd pleaser, and his unexpectedness and originality felt like a breath of fresh air.
     
This show marked the first of many collaborations between the company and animator William Kentridge, who also directed the original production. The more metaphorical places his scrubby misty charcoal drawings could take us, were the most effective – where shifting constellations or sinister stains escaping from beneath an impertinently wriggling dinner plate allowed us to enter into the fevered imagination of Woyzeck’s breakdown. However, the ways the animations were used by the production felt limited and for an audience versed in the playfulness of Complicite or the bonkers interactivity of Forkbeard Fantasy there simply wasn’t enough creative play between stage and screen. Some of the video sequence even felt a mite repetitive – a good joke doesn’t get better the second time around. This raises a question for me about the nature of re-productions: when a project has been reinvested in, with new director and (largely) new team, is the greatest use of this investment to recreate a classic for new audiences or to create a new version for the present day? For me there were times when the production’s values were those of a museum piece – showing us some of the genesis of Handspring’s wonderful approach and aesthetic, but for a new audience, I don’t think that is enough. From a puppetry point of view there was much to enjoy here. But many of the audience, perhaps unfairly expecting Warhorse, seemed to feel short-changed.

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The Tempest Puppet Music Show
The Isle is Full of Noises
Wilton’s Music Hall, London
9 September 2011

Reviewed by Isobel Smith

The cardboard box and gaffer tape aesthetic fits perfectly with the elegantly distressed grandeur of Wilton's, the worlds oldest surviving Grand Music Hall, and is all we need to conjure up the solitude and remoteness of Prospero's island.

Philipp Pleßmann performs and manipulates his puppets with such physicality and commitment that he is never alone on the island stage – it soon becomes 'full of noises, sounds and sweet airs' as Shakespeare specified it should. Sweet modern guitar riff-airs! It brims with human and spirit life.

The hilariously irreverent score, written by Pleßmann and Nicholas McCarthy, mixes pop 'do-da-dos' with Shakespearian prose. It references 70s Glam-rock and is performed 'rock star' style by McCarthy – guitarist with Franz Ferdinand.

The main puppet, Prospero, is a mask-like talking head, a terrifying combination of wide-mouthed muppet and lifelike human. Pleßmann can operate it from behind and embody Prospero's character and step aside to engage it in dialogue.

Bowing his head Pleßmann reveals a naive gaffer-featured face on the top of his hat, and it is this, combined with a giant physical performance, that conjures Caliban the monster/manservant. Gonzalo, Sebastian, Antonio and King Alonso are finger puppets, taking over one of Pleßmann's hands, and the fast dialogue between puppeteer and puppets is breathtaking.

It's a beautiful, haunting creation, it's fun, and it is a great pop way in to Shakespeare.

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Little Cauliflower
Street Dreams
Underbelly, Edinburgh | Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

Little Cauliflower are recent alumni from the increasingly impressive University of Kent’s School of Arts (which has also spawned lo-fi theatre superstars Little Bulb amongst others) by whom this production has been Gateway funded; presumably, as it was a year in the making, it was also partly created whilst on the course. This year-long evolution has created a richly evolved world for its lead character, ‘The Old Man’, whose table-top home is a rubbish dump constructed out of real trash, all lumps of cardboard and pieces of plastic. It is felt in the playfulness with which the objects of this world are used, which speaks of a sustained exploration of their properties and character, and manifests in the gentle pace of a production that works gradually through the possibilities of each set piece.      

The Old Man is a roughly hewn table-top with a paper mache head generally animated by two performers. His silent engagement with the audience, underscored by various company members jumping on to mouth organ, accordion and flute, is endearing and allows for some of the show’s most successful moments when he reacts – indignantly, with bafflement, joyfully – to us and with us. The animation is largely solid, though the switching performers on his feet can sometimes be a bit variable, making for some odd angles and disjointed steps. I was also very uncertain about the presence of the five strong cast – unmasked though all in black, their energy often seemed oddly laid back and unfocused, and their faces felt very intrusive, particularly in the object animation sequences when it felt hard to ignore their machinations and concentrate on the drama in the scene.  

The show is at its strongest in its rather Beckettian vision of a rubbish tip world and the circumscribed pleasures of the man whose life inhabits it. The unified aesthetic of waste creates some strikingly memorable images and there’s a joyful sense of playfulness in the handling of objects and scenarios. There’s still work to be done, in the rhythm of the storytelling, which takes a long time to get going (its when he finally leaves the tip that the engine really revs) and whose riskily placed blackout in the penultimate scene foxed the entire audience into thinking the show was over, and in some of the focus in the puppetry. But this is a quirky and touching production that has developed a delicate piece of storytelling within an original world with a committed puppetry aesthetic. A company whose future work is definitely worth following.

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DNA
The Frog Prince and Other Peculiar Tales from 'Terry Jones Fairy Tales'
The Lowry, Salford
16 July 2011

Reviewed by George Harris

That trusted old Brothers Grimm story, 'The Frog Prince', is an ideal trigger for the seasoned visual theatre company Dynamic New Animation to get their all-round creative talents firing.

Nearly all the myriad versions of the tale (and it has variants all across Europe and the Far East plus, of course, Disney’s classic animation and the Muppets' unique take) revolve around the notion of a magical transformation – a specialism for the now Anglo-Australian DNA. Anyone who has seen the company’s work will know that they are masters at sparking life into the simplest of everyday objects and transforming them into wonderfully enchanting and engaging characters.

Not surprisingly, then, in their hands and those of the talented performer Liz Fitzgerald Taylor, The Frog Prince gets the full DNA treatment. Masks, shadows, lighting, puppetry, high energy physical performance, plus an original composed soundtrack that fits the eccentric narrative like a glove all make for a show that the youngsters at The Lowry’s Studio lapped up enthusiastically.

Indeed, at its conclusion, the show encourages kids to pitch in with a clever participatory examination of the themes within the show and you know that the whole piece has been a success when there’s a massed clamour for junior philosophy.

Much of the feelgood factor is, quite simply, down to a winning performance from Ms Fitzgerald Taylor. Even though she’s got plenty on her plate with a show that demands theatrical versatility and not a little energy, she cleverly balances the need to assume character and yet remain closely in contact with her young audience.

The show would have benefited, though, from a few more well-chosen breathing spaces, quieter moments to balance the high-octane delivery and allow the narrative to resonate better. There is a beautiful masked scene which performs this important function, but a few others would not have gone amiss.

Still, a lively young audience hardly seemed to care as they all hugely enjoyed this journey of transformation with DNA. The Frog Prince is a crowd pleaser which charmingly wins young hearts and minds.

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Postscript
After the madness of the crowds we spent time in the quiet surrounds of Nantes park. On leaving we saw a solitary figure stumbling down one of the back streets. It was Jean-Luc Courcoult the company director and this was barely one hour after the show had finished. It was perhaps the most poignant image of a long weekend full of memorable images.


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