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Reviews
visions 2004, Theatre-rites and Trestle Theatre

Reviews from visions international festival of visual performance.
Brighton, October 2004.

Teatro Marionetas do Porto
Nada, ou o Silencio de Beckett
Horse+Bamboo
A Strange and Unexpected Event
Theatre du Risorius
Volpino
Chemins de Terre
Professor Olaf Stevenson's Chest of Drawers
Sallis Benney/ Gardner Arts Centre FoyersTeatro Marionetas do Porto
Nada, ou o Silencio de Beckett

Komedia
By Beccy Smith
The world of Samuel Beckett has certain characteristics common to the world implied by puppetry’s dramaturgy. This was the central premise underpinning Teatro Marionetas do Porto’s exploration of Beckett’s work and a compelling case they made for it too. Beckett’s subjected and confined bodies, his absurd philosophical world and eloquent images effectively translated into the company’s visually expressive and physically inventive performance communicated through the subtle dance of bodies, masks and puppets.
The show’s vision was a challenging one: to create a comment on Beckett’s work through a collage of ideas and material from a range of his theatrical and other writings. The starting point was ‘nothing’, his statement on the silence of the universe to man’s gestures toward meaning and significance and a recurrently interrogated theme throughout the artist’s life.
Scrupulous animation of the muscular and highly articulated tabletop figures peopled the performance with empathetic human forms: straining under the weight of existence; writhing and dancing, strait jacketed; floating aspirationally to the flies and subsisting in the dirt from where simple trees materialise. Puppetry and performance were excellently integrated with the performers’ refined physicality assisting sophisticated comment on the parallels between the two and the dialogue between performer, puppet and text. In the sequence from Play Without Words II for example, the protagonist’s perplexity at his repeated subjection by his environment is made more manifest and complex by the changeful relationship with his manipulators, sympathising with him even as they hurl him across the stage.
The sound design and set conception were ingenious, the former, an intelligent combination of pertinent soundscape and original technological scoring magnifying the sense of the material’s contemporary relevance; the latter facilitating a dazzling array of stage imagery from Magritte-style framed characters to dislocated branch-like limbs and the absurdly listing wall of a mundane building.
Exhilarating, challenging and beautiful, Nada, is fuelled by the energy of puppetry’s fundamental tension - the relationship of man / performer to object - and at the hands of this skilful company took the audience on a journey both thrillingly theatrical and profound.

Horse+Bamboo

A Strange and Unexpected Event
Komedia
By Penny Francis
Brecht’s alienation - distancing – effect, call it what you will, sometimes seems more like disillusionment in both its senses. Illusion – not wanted: let’s show the workings, the machinery, the actors chatting in the wings, to make sure nobody is indulging in any sort of escapism – heaven forbid.
The danger of all this is that theatricality must always be sacrificed, sometimes at the expense of the aesthetics, and of course the tension. Horse and Bamboo have made a piece about the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and the piece starts with the performers in expressive full-head masks grouped around a decorated memorial to their late father/friend/husband, the graphist and cartoonist Jose Posada. He rises from the grave to reenact his life and death (from a surfeit of pulque), attended by a fiendishly grinning, scarlet devil making sure Posada returns whence he came. So far so good: funny, a bit creepy, some good physicality, great scenography (mostly Posada’s drawings) and an unusual story. The women moved well and looked dusky and Mexican - until they removed their masks and appeared as themselves: three lasses, each looking and sounding as un-Mexican as primroses. Any belief that we were under the Mexican sky, well sustained to that moment, was shattered. The loss of illusion was intentional, but a mistake.
Apart from that there were some fine sequences; the resurrected Posada in his bowler hat (there wasn’t a cast list) was excellent, and the show is mostly to be recommended – if only we could be allowed to keep our illusions!

Theatre du Risorius
Volpino
University of Brighton
By Dorothy Max Prior
Volpino is a puppet-theatre piece set in the company's own distinctive red caravan-theatre, on this occasion parked in the Quadrant garden of University of Brighton's art faculty. It's a rather odd children's show - I felt a great deal of empathy with the toddler who left, howling, at the beginning as the fox family were pretty scary, especially Daddy Volpe who graphically demonstrates that there is more than one way to skin a rabbit. The captured bobtail turns out to be stunned not dead and escapes the pot, and Miss Rabbit and Master Volpino pall up - demonstrating the potential for inter-species harmony. They set off on a series of countryside adventures, and the story is developed at a cracking pace through skilled animation with a running commentary in Commedia-style Grommeltage. 'Not English, not French, not anything…'we are told at the beginning by solo performer/puppeteer Thierry Dupre, who has all the skills and ease of a seasoned performer. The aesthetic of the piece is car boot sale meets your Granny's parlour: the puppets are a quirky mix of knitted wool, wood and latex - with fur trim; there are wooden bar-counters, occasional tables, framed rabbit-family portraits and rag-doll chickens (on lengths of elastic so they can be pinged over the heads of the delighted audience).
Dupre has the audience - adults and children - eating out of his hand from beginning to end, proving that children's theatre can have pace, edginess and humour without recourse to over-their-heads adult humour. It has the same universal appeal as a folktale (Grimms meets Brer Rabbit in tone) and is reliant on the power of human communication without being linked to any one verbal language - thus it crosses International boundaries with ease. All in all this is a great romp for kids of all ages.

Chemins de Terre
Professor Olaf Stevenson's Chest of Drawers
Sallis Benney/ Gardner Arts Centre Foyers
By Dorothy Max Prior
Professor Olaf Stevenson's Chest of Drawers, a one-man one-cupboard show presented by Chemins de Terre from Belgium, was one of the little gems of this visions festival - and one of a number of shows that were presented as free-to-audience pieces on in foyers before full-length shows. The Prof gathers his audience - he's a little nervous as he is giving a very important lecture. He tries Swedish, French - and eventually hits on English. The audience are sold. And now that he has our attention, he turns his attention to his wooden chest. There are 40 drawers in the chest, and the content of each show is determined by which drawers the Professor chooses to open in his cod lecture on the origins of the universe, evolution and the nature of love (amongst other scientific and philosophical conundrums). Forks, tin cans, balloons, marzipan, bananas, leeks, drawing pins… all are transformed in the hands of this skilled puppeteer-clown. All of the little sketches are extremely funny - many with a pleasantly nasty edge. On one of three occasions that I encountered the Professor, I was in the company of the Gardner Drama Centre kids (involved in the festival through a special block on puppetry and animation with Orlando Bishop). The 12 year-olds were particularly taken with a detailed surgical operation on cans of baked beans and creamed rice which became - and once the professor had planted the idea this is what they were - guts and brains. We were also impressed with (drawing pin) 'Naughty' George Bush destroying the (blown up yellow rubber glove) sun and thus ending life on earth. A sequence on evolution ends sorrowfully for a marzipan pig, and a romance between a leek and a banana also ends in tears. Life and death, love and romance, global politics, metaphysics - it's all here in the flick of a wrist. This sort of animation - the transformation of ordinary everyday objects to hilarious effect - is one that any audience can identify with and which goes to the very heart of the nature of theatre in its parallel with the first games of children. We can all be thankful that if the Prof's mother ever said 'Don't play with your food' he certainly never took notice.
For other visions reviews, see Animations Online 11.

Theatre-rites

In One Ear
Lyric, Hammersmith
London

December 2004
By Dorothy Max Prior
In One Ear is a three-way collaboration between theatre-rites director Sue Buckmaster, visual artist Sophia Clist and composer Evelyn Ficarra. It is a 'play' in the purest sense of the word. Four musician-performers spend an hour playing: with the space, an empty stage with a series of beautifully lit sliding screens at the back; with each other through simple mime and clowning; with a series of ever-more intriguing objects which include cylinders and balls, an enormous hat-box that somehow moves from solid construction to a pliable loop, and some impressive musical instruments including a cello, an organic-looking harp and drums of all shapes and sizes. There is a very simple narrative, but this is principally a series of games and vignettes.
In One Ear is full of visual and musical delights. Performers appear and disappear from behind the screens, call and response rhythms abound and there many lovely moments of simple but highly effective animation as two hands and a couple of wooden balls become puppets, or a little walking figure suddenly evolves from a drum hoop.
But successful though the show is on many levels, there is one element that needs development and this is the placing of the audience in relation to the work on stage. Aimed at 3-6 year olds, the show begins and ends with audience interaction, but for most of the show the fourth wall remains intact. The young audience that I shared the experience with seemed confused by this. They shouted ever louder to attempt to gain the performers' attention and clapped and sang loudly through the quieter parts of the show. I felt that they needed a guide on their journey - someone to relate to them and hold the space for them. Skilled though the musician-performers were, they didn't really evidence the necessary skills in direct engagement with an audience of this age. Placing at least one performer in a narrator role, in direct engagement with the audience throughout the piece, I feel would improve it immensely.

The Smallest Person
Trestle Theatre Company
Cochrane Theatre, London
November 2004
By Penny Francis
The Smallest Person is Emily Gray’s first production since taking over as Artistic Director of Trestle. The piece consists of two parallel stories, one set in late Georgian England, the true story of a tiny child, Caroline Crachami, who at the age of eight was only nineteen and a half inches tall. The second story purports to mirror the first: it features an emotional modern teenager, determined that her toddler brother will not be removed to hospital in case he meets the same fate as the Smallest Person, with whose story she is obsessed. The latter died of consumption soon after being wrested from her parents by a charlatan and presented in London as a freak. Alas, though a good idea, the modern parallel is not credible, although the story of Caroline is intriguing enough to carry the show.
The myriad characters are performed by a versatile cast of only five (Michael Wagg is especially strong) with puppets as the two children. Li-Leng Au plays the teenager and also animates Caroline well. Liz Johnson has made the puppet to ensure it a rolling, clumsy gait, with features and proportions more reminiscent of an old lady than a child. Difficult to tell whether this is intentional.
The masks, made by a team headed by Tim Meacock, are superbly designed, made and performed in by all the historical characters. A wall of screens serves as background to the show, with panels that open and close and display the shadow sequences. The occasional episode is lit so as to flood it with atmosphere and colour: this transforms the otherwise severe scenography most effectively.
The show had vitality and one gripping storyline and is thus worth seeing.

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