The Kohler and Jones Show
'I'm sorry we're so evangelical!’ Jeremy Bidgood talks to Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring, who are fighting the good fight for puppetry
As far as contemporary puppetry goes, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, otherwise known as Handspring Puppet Company, are royalty – and deservedly so. With a long career behind them of critically acclaimed work, they have navigated their company from touring schools in a small van across South Africa to international recognition and high budget collaborations including the epic War Horse, their acclaimed collaboration with the National Theatre – now firmly entrenched in London's West End, and soon to open in New York and Toronto.
We meet at the Central School of Speech and Drama on the occasion of a special lecture given by Handspring: Jones and Kohler are not in London to work on War Horse but to star in a new play, Or You Could Kiss Me, a collaboration with playwright and director Neil Bartlett and their second production for London's National Theatre, staged in the modestly sized Cottesloe Theatre. The play is a far cry from the epic narrative of War Horse. It tells the story of Mr A and Mr B: from their first meeting on a beach near Cape Town to their final days together as Mr B succumbs to emphysema. It's a semi-biographical, semi-futuristic look at Kohler and Jones' life together told through expertly manipulated near-lifesize human puppets. The show is intimate and touching, and deals with the impending death of your life partner, memory loss, and gay politics in apartheid South Africa. War Horse Part IIthis is not.
‘We wanted a chamber piece that was not epic in size, perhaps epic in theme,' explains Kohler, pouring me a coffee. ‘It's been a remarkable project,' he continues, ‘in the sense that Neil Bartlett had never written for puppets before but he came to this having heard our wish list: that it would be about breath; that it would have minimal dialogue; that it would make everyday objects epic – you know, ordinary lives epic. And he wrote a play that contained all of that. It's a dream come true really.’
Kohler is clearly excited by this tailor-made text, written with his intricately constructed puppets in mind. But are the puppets he has made connecting with audiences as much as his horse creations?
‘The animal the audience empathises with almost immediately; the human being takes a bit more time, and that was one of the challenges we wanted to set ourselves after War Horse. We wanted to work with naturalistic human characters. There is the question that rises in the audience: “Well why are you telling this story with puppets then, if there are naturalistic humans in your story?” So it is more of a challenge.’
Jones suddenly enters the discussion. 'I think we've come out of a long tradition that has thought of puppets as being highly unnaturalistic and puppeteers have felt obliged to make their puppets look very unnaturalistic and grotesque and it's partially a way of justifying a puppet on stage. If it looks naturalistic then why have it?’
'It needs some level of abstraction to justify it,' adds Kohler.
‘And we've been saying – actually no,' continues Jones, 'a totally naturalistic puppet on stage still is hugely different to a human on stage. And it's got to do with the fact that we are transforming an object into a verb when we're dealing with puppets. A human being never has to fight to be alive and that fight to be alive is part of the fascination of every moment that a puppet is on stage. Puppetry has a place in stage – it doesn't need to justify itself by being non-naturalistic or bigger than or smaller than or...’
'At the same time,' interjects Kohler, 'our figures are deliberately non-naturalistic in the sense that there is a level of abstraction in the way that they look. You can see through them at times and they've got strange construction in the limbs. So what you're looking at is a non-naturalistic object trying to behave naturalistically. So, what I think we're talking about is a naturalism in the performance quality rather than the way it looks.'
I get the sense that Handspring have a message for the world and that message is puppetry brings things to theatre that nothing else can.
‘One of the offers of puppetry,' says Jones, 'is its ability to sidestep the word and to look at other language forms. One of the things I'm interested in is discovering languages that we use but don't know that we use. We're very interested in the language of touch, for instance. Touch can be a whole opera in itself if you are working in a subtle enough way.'
Jones also mentions the communicative importance of breath and micro-movement; his idea that small, insignificant movements, such as reaching for a cup of tea, can take on epic proportions when performed by a puppet. Words are not the order of the day.
'Although,’ Jones adds, 'we always have a caveat saying we would also like to do a word-intense piece, a Sam Shepherd piece...’
They laugh and briefly discuss other verbose texts, and playwrights they might like to stage. Kohler mentions Ronnie Burkett as an example of puppeteer successfully using large amounts of text. It becomes clear that although they have a message they do not want to preach.
‘I think the most important thing is not to be didactic,' continues Jones, 'I think the micro-movement story is what's interesting us at the moment, but we might walk away from it tomorrow and be involved in something totally different, like caricature and satire which is a big neglected area.’
Are they tempted to return to the strongly political tone of some of their previous work?
'We've always been interested in politics,' says Jones, 'but our idea of what politics is, and what form of politics interests us, changes. A lot of our politics in recent times has been connected to puppetry and its status in the world, and the nature of authorship in puppet theatre. I think it's a very important issue.’
Jones is an advocate for the authorship of both the puppeteer and the puppet-maker as being distinct from the authorship of the writer, and it is telling that Or You Could Kiss Me is jointly credited to Neil Bartlett and Handspring Puppet Company. But Jones' politicised language shows that he is not yet satisfied puppetry is entirely accepted and welcomed in the theatre world.
'People are not aware what a big offer puppetry makes to contemporary theatre and to our lives,' an impassioned Jones says, 'because it's offering very different things on stage to what has been offered all the way until now. Normal stage [work] can't offer animals and the interaction between ourselves and animals, “normal stage” doesn't do that.'
‘Another one of the offers of puppet theatre that I think is unique,' says Jones, 'is when three people together are creating a character, as Bunraku does. It kind of goes into the realm of oogy-boogy, as we say, but there is something physically intense about three people who are so in-tune with one another that they can, together, think for and feel for a character.’
Kohler joins in: ‘I also think with multiple manipulators, because there's no one single person responsible for that figure, the audience don't have to concentrate on an individual performer. They can concentrate on the idea of the character in a way that [they can’t] when you're looking at an actor playing the part. [When you see] Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot, you see how brilliant he is and you think, “Wow I'm so glad I'm here watching Ian McKellen do this part”, because it's definitive. Whereas with the puppet you don't have to think that you can simply dive right in to the idea of the character, and in a sense the puppeteers are anonymous.'
The puppeteers in Or You Could Kiss Me, though, are hardlyanonymous but are prominently part of the action, in part due to the three-sided thrust staging. I ask Jones and Kohler about the puppets getting hidden behind the puppeteers.
'I like the fact that the puppeteers are a screen. I love the screen,' says Jones, 'your imagination is being teased all the time.’
'When the screen is moving,' adds Kohler, 'you're getting glimpses through it and you yourself are adding the missing pieces in.'
‘Maybe you're inventing things that aren't there or maybe in fact you are missing things that you're being given but I think that's an interesting place for an audience to be,' says Jones.
Kohler continues: 'The audience are invited to invest when you attend a puppet performance. You know you'll be watching something which has moving figures and you will be asked to believe they have life. If you collude with that, then you have agreed to author your portion of the experience and I think the connecting of the dots that you have to do with the moving screen is in the same realm.’
We are back to authorship and it is clear from our discussion that Jones and Kohler could probably author several books on their theories and concepts of puppetry and theatre. (Editor’s note: and indeed they have in recent years published a book on their work!)
But despite their vocal theorising and proselytising it seems they are right about people's continued lack of comprehension of puppetry. Writing in The Telegraph, Charles Spencer's review of Or You Could Kiss Me mentions his 'longstanding aversion to puppetry' within the first sentence. Such obvious critical bias, ignorance and, dare I say it, discrimination clearly riles Jones and Kohler as well.
‘It's one of the things I kind of wonder. Where are the critics in London theatre when they're talking about best performance on stage?’ asks Jones. 'When we came back [to London] for this rehearsal period we saw a new Topthorn arrive on stage [in War Horse]. I was completely blown away by the three actors, how amazingly they worked together.’
‘The animal was practically exploding on stage, it was incredible,’ Jones continues, 'these are great performances and they're not even being talked of as performances! I mean it's part of our frustration with the focus on the word, because when you've got an absolutely amazing performance by a being that is not using words it's kind of not even acknowledged.’
Kohler joins Jones' impassioned speech: 'It's not using words and it's three people and so they can't call it an actor because they haven't got the words for it. And that's their limitation because it is on the stage and it is a main character in a piece.’
By now both Jones and Kohler are talking at me, animated and deadly serious. This is clearly an issue that has troubled them for a while. Indeed, their 2008 Olivier Award from the first production of War Horse was awarded for Set Design.
'It kind of gets to me,' Jones declares, exasperated. And then in a calmer voice, 'I'm sorry we're so evangelical.’
As they put on their coats and rush off to prepare for their lecture, it seems apparent to me that such theoretically valid evangelicalism is just what puppetry needs as it continues to seek acceptance in the wider world of theatre. Only with advocacy like this will we see informed critics in the national press and major awards that focus on puppetry. Now I'm being evangelical. Sorry.