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Reviews in AO20:

Improbable, English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera
• Satyagraha
Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes
• Ten Days on Earth

Reviews from Brighton Festival and Fringe

Stephen Clark (writer)/Nitin Sawhney (composer)
• Mahabharata
Ian Saville
• Brecht on Magic 2007: Magic for Socialism
• The Confessions of Punch and Judy
Swazzled Theatre
• That’s the Way To Do It!
Various artists
• Streets of Brighton 2007

Reviews from X.trax Showcase in Manchester

Pickled Image
• Bernard's Puppet Bonanza/The Marvellous Box Of Peeps and Delights
• Monkey Business


Improbable, English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera


London Coliseum

7 April 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Satyagraha, a collaboration on the opera by Philip Glass by the English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera of New York with Improbable, follows the acclaim given to the ENO/Met collaboration with London-based puppet company Blind Summit on Madame Butterfly. Satyagraha is fully animated by a dedicated 'skills ensemble' cast of twelve puppeteers, aerialists, stilt walkers, prop makers and dramatic extras. Improbable's creative team under the direction of Phelim McDermott (director) and Julian Crouch (associate director and set designer) have produced a work of musical theatre that is deeply meditative in tone, emphasising rough puppetry and process over product.

Satyagraha (1980) is the second of Phillip Glass's three 'portrait operas', sandwiched between Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten. The piece centres around M.K. Gandhi's years in South Africa around the turn of the twentieth century, when Gandhi published a newspaper titled Indian Opinion and led a movement of non-violent resistance, which he dubbed satyagraha (truth-force), directed against colonial legislation discriminating against South Asians.  The opera's text is based on the Bhagavad Gita and sung entirely in Sanskrit. Musically, the opera is the epitome of minimalism, characterised by gradually modulated repeated phrases (modelled on Indian ragas).

Improbable's production disdains the polished images and grand spectacle popularly associated with opera, working instead with self-consciously poor materials. The action is contained within a set of curved corrugated iron, inspired by colonial architecture and intended to evoke a symbolic space of struggle. Windows and portals open from time to time for entrances, exits and tableaux. Puppets are fashioned onstage from crumpled newspapers and papier-mâché and baskets.

The dissonance between the smooth minimalism and the rough puppetry is effective, opening up many avenues for contemplation about relations between cause and effect. Not all the scenic imagery is as powerful as it might be. For example, I found the construction of a gigantic spirit figure of Sellotape in Act III to be long in the making and lacking expression in its completed state. In a post-performance discussion (itself a first for the ENO), McDermott and Crouch suggested that this might be part of the point: satyagraha involves staying the course and being persistent despite resistance offered. The struggle of satyagraha was thus reflected in the struggle of the theatre-makers, the failures in execution as important as the polished perfection in timing and choreography. This perhaps is one of the great moral lessons offered by puppetry: man is not always the measure of things.

Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes

Ten Days on Earth

Barbican Pit/BITE


19 April 2007

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

Watching Ten Days on Earth I had one of those moments when you step outside of yourself for an instant. At that moment I thought "I'm sitting here in a darkened theatre, at a serious international arts event, watching a marionette show - and onstage a goofy puppet dog, a chirpy chick and a cute toy lamb-girl are talking and singing little songs." But the moment quickly passed, and I was once again drawn into the tale unfolding, willing to suspend all disbelief.

The cuddly toys (Honeydog, Little Burp, and Blanche du Baaa) provide the story within the story, bedtime book characters that illustrate the 'child with adult desires' internal life of Darrel Glebeholme, a middle aged man with learning difficulties who finds himself home alone, rattling around an empty house in which his mother has passed away - except that he doesn't really understand that she is dead, tentatively greeting and taking leave of her each day as he goes off to work and comes home again; mildly complaining about the lack of dinner, and worrying whether his Mom is cross at him because she isn't speaking.

It is a heartrending story, the lonely dreams inside the house juxtaposed with ghostly re-enactments of scenes from his mother Ivy's life, and with beautifully realised encounters with the outside world, which is populated by a series of colourful characters including Lloyd the lyrical tramp, a sparky Sally Army lady called Irene and Darrel's 'girlfriend' Big Patsy.

There is so much going on - so many well developed characters, each on their own trajectory in real or dream time; so many cleverly interweaving narrative strands; so many poignant thoughts and challenging ideas and overwhelming emotions swirling around - that it is only at the end of the two-hour no-interval marathon, as Burkett takes his bows, that you really take in that this - all of this! - is just one man on a stage.

If you've seen Burkett perform you'll know that in that two hours he doesn't let up for a moment; he's a bundle of energy constantly manipulating his team of marionettes whilst simultaneously voicing all the characters - and even though for this show he has chosen to stay in a traditional marionetting mode, working in semi-darkness above his long-stringed puppets, he is so much the total performer that our eyes are constantly drawn to him. To some, this stealing of attention from the puppets would be considered bad form. But somehow it feels just right: the puppeteer as shaman living out the emotions for and with his puppets.

And if you've seen a Burkett show before you'll also know that everything on stage is beautifully crafted to a point of obsessive perfection: the set and the puppets carved and hewn and chiselled and painted with loving care and an attention to detail that goes beyond any sort of rational need. It is noted in the programme that the puppets' handmade brogues have exactly the right number of holes punched into their leather uppers.

If you haven't seen Burkett, then you must. Not just because of the importance he has to puppetry, but because he is a supreme theatre-maker. In the end, it isn't about the puppets, marvellous though they are. It's about one man telling stories, using anything he has to hand. Is that a heretical thought?

Reviews from Brighton Festival and Fringe

Stephen Clark (writer)/Nitin Sawhney (composer)


Theatre Royal/Brighton Festival

25 May 2007

Reviewed by Beccy Smith

Mahabharata has a fine vintage - I'm a fan of Nitin Sawhney's music and the promised combination of Kathak choreography (by Gauri Sharma Tripathi) with puppetry (by Sue Buckmaster), both forms with strong traditions in Indian storytelling, sounded rich in possibility. Unfortunately this is not the only fruit of an auspicious and heavily invested collaboration I've witnessed of late whose lineage exudes promise the production proves woefully unable to fulfil.

As many reviewers have noted, reducing the epic 76,000 verses of the Mahabharata ('India's greatest epic') into a mere 2hours and 40minutes of dramatic representation is an epic task all on its  own. Add to this the episodic quality of the material, its mythic treatment of characters, and ideas in a tradition whose points of reference can feel obscure and far removed, and creating a dramatically dynamic piece of storytelling (within the confines of music theatre) becomes a real challenge. It seems to be one that the company has approached diversely - the score articulating one mode and set of themes, the set (a clunky asymmetrical tower clearly intended to be symbolic of Something but succeeding only in proving laughably predictable as a piece of stage kit) trying to establish another. The writing and lyrics seemed to be attempting to imbue characters intended as mythic and narrative archetypes with the sort of conflicted modern western interiority normally better suited to soap. And the villain was straight out of panto, complete with a suspicious looking moustache.

The production vaunts its 'total theatre' qualifications with pride, but every element felt tokenistic. In a whistle-stop tour we visit abstract dance, and more figuratively expressive choreography, elements of circus (both silks and stilts), film and stills projections, and puppetry. The tabletop puppetry sequence, where women puppets wash their clothes in a river whilst one woman bundles her child into a basket and mourns his loss, was decently choreographed, with simple colour and chorus movements, but the weight of expressiveness was carried by the music. I wanted to float away with it. Sadly not even Nitin Sawhney and a full size orchestra could save this overblown and over-egged production from itself.

Ian Saville

Brecht on Magic 2007: Magic for Socialism

Komedia Studio, Brighton Fringe Festival

12 May 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen

Ian Saville's Brecht on Magic 2007 is a rare revival of a 1985 solo show with a uniquely clever premise. The gods from Bertolt Brecht's play The Good Person of Szechuan (represented by a blow-up plastic cloud and rainbow and a recorded voice) descend to earth to find out whether it is possible to have socialist culture within capitalist society. Due to a miscalculation of exchange rates, they are unable to afford a ticket to the National or RSC, and instead engage the magician Ian Saville to perform socialist magic for them. As a reward, the gods leave behind a dummy of Bertolt Brecht, who tutors Saville in art and politics.

The play is intensely meta-theatrical with frequent recourse to, and commentary upon, Brechtian verfremdungseffekts. Saville makes the most out of temporal disjunctions, commenting knowingly on the differences between political and theatrical culture in 1985 and today. The play is also intensely political, using a classic rope trick to illustrate Marx and Engels' theory of class struggle from The Communist Manifesto, for example. But all the discourse on alienation of labour, national politics and social transformation is done with good humour, in between magic tricks and amusing asides.

The magic itself is well performed, though my wife and daughter, sitting in the front row of the intimate Komedia Studio, said they could see the strings in Saville's card tricks. Saville's lips moved noticeably when he voiced Bertolt Brecht, and the manipulation of the doll was perfunctory at times. Not that this mattered much: Saville's moving lips were often the brunt of his own jokes. Saville's point is not to perform what he calls 'bourgeois magic', but to use popular entertainment to change the way we think and behave. Brecht on Magic 2007 provides an opportunity for reflection upon the fate of radical theatre, and how much idealism British performance has lost over the last two decades. It is a necessary intervention, and should be seen by anyone who cares about theatre and society.


The Confessions of Punch and Judy

The Nightingale Theatre/ Brighton Festival Fringe

20 May 2007

Reviewed by Darren East

"Are we monsters?" this very human Punch and Judy ask each other. Despite NACL's exuberant theatricality, the pair's arguments repeatedly begin with wincingly recognisable moments of trivial tactlessness that escalate inexorably. This is, entirely and precisely, a show about being a couple, about the terrors and wishes of intimacy, about the power struggles and the needless yet somehow necessary arguments that life together provokes.

NACL (North American Cultural Laboratory) is a New York-based experimental theatre company who work with a laboratory-based process of 'practical research'. Actor training is core to their work, and it is a joy to watch their rigorously controlled but explosive physicality - in an instant they jump-cut between banal domesticity and stylised combat, ballroom dancing, or a vicious human ventriloquism act.

There is great puppetry, too, especially when the characters 'express' their individual turmoil and vulnerability: Punch tells a bastardised creation myth - And God Created Punch - with his hammers and tools; Judy a Snake Prince folk tale with a stocking and shoes. In both cases, the animation used exquisite stillness, until the crucial moments of action: the violent dink of a hammer, the shedding of a stocking.

But why Punch and Judy? On one level, the connection provides a frame for a show that contains such varied performance elements: the (literally framing) coloured drapes, the stories, the songs, the profusion of action. But it doesn't quite work, entirely: the familiar Punch story is only incidentally about a couple - Judy rarely survives the first act, after all. Punch is a celebration of individual anarchic rebellion, and there was nothing here as cathartically, unreasonably savage as a good Punch and Judy show - something perhaps only puppets can deliver. I wondered if it was this mismatch of forms that ultimately undermined the redemptive narrative here and, particularly, the ending of the piece when the couple find connection and consolation in a most uncharacteristically flabby bit of play with a large gold sheet.

But I will remember the many theatrically masterful elements; the show was, pleasingly, most compassionate towards its central characters when it showed them at their monstrous worst.

Swazzled Theatre

That's the Way To Do It!

Brighton Media Centre/ Brighton Festival Fringe

11 May 2007

Reviewed by Beccy Smith


It seems a strange coincidence to have two shows that have catapulted Punch and Judy from the puppet booth to the main stage in this year's Brighton Fringe. What is the lure of converting this classic form?  Both shows make use of puppetry, although not as the main vehicle for expression; a greater degree of psychologising is aspired to, whilst keeping hold of those elements of shape, colour, even content which characterise the original.  In both cases the shows seem to be both re-presentation and comment - but what is the comment they're trying to make and why is it relevant now? 

The main problem with That's the Way to Do it! is its apparent ambition to make an (a)moral point through this choice of form. Opening with archive footage of young children squealing with glee at classic scenes of Punch and Judy knockabout, the premise of the show's title is a sort of naughty, self-knowing snigger about what any criticism of Punch reveals about our secret enjoyment of such qualities. Punch here becomes a loveable rogue, who in a strangely psychologised moment with the Devil is truly penitent (a depth of character that's an unfortunate side effect of using human actors, masked or not), and who then uses our sympathy to drive home his final point. Unfortunately, to try to forge such transparent parallels between Punch and his audience represents a fundamental misunderstanding. The world created by Punch and Judy never can be directly reflective of our own - its evocation through puppets has evolved for a reason - their liberty to unleash and harness deep impulses and hold them within their own form.

There were, however, many strong elements to this show. Recasting Punch and Judy with human performers on a cartoonish kitchen sink council-estate set, the company showcased a strong visual and physical style. Working entirely in half mask, knockabout sequences were choreographed and executed with panache. The company played inventively with their material, playing close to their sources, and transplanting traditional sequences - Judy's murder; the fight with the crocodile (here re-imagined as a huge-jawed shaggy dog) outwitting and killing the policemen (a terrifically sexual re-imagination of the sausages) onto their grotesque human canvas. Glove puppet representation was used for the most luridly violent episodes (which begged the question of why actors were used in the first place). The writing was strong - a hurdy-gurdy rhythm of rhyming couplets heightening the skewed reality of the stage world and occasionally offering up a really satisfying pay off.

This premiere production from Swazzled displays a vivid theatrical imagination and promising individual style. Yet in its triumphant brandishing of an incessant physical and verbal violence as innate to the form - the company vigorously raise the stakes, including anal penetration, murderous masturbation and ripping a dog completely inside out - without adequate dramatic justification, it left this reviewer feeling a little… swazzled.

Streets of Brighton 2007

Various artists

11-12 May 2007

Friday 11 May Festival Roundup by Matthew Isaac Cohen

The Brighton Festival is often likened to the Edinburgh Festivals, and there are indeed many resemblances in programming, celebratory mood and temperamental weather. The Streets of Brighton is distinguished from Edinburgh's street art. While Edinburgh sports a hodgepodge of street entertainers of the sort performing year-round in Covent Garden and London's tube stations, Streets of Brighton is a well-curated festival of street performance, with a diversity of acts from all over the UK and Europe performing in a compact area of the city on two consecutive afternoons. A free 20-page illustrated guide with a helpful map and schedule allows you to maximise your fun.

I spent a jolly afternoon in the company of my wife and daughter sitting in the Pavilion Gardens watching street theatre, jostling for a glimpse of stunt bike riding on New Road, listening to the strains of pop music bands and soaking up the atmosphere of this seaside town, with an occasional glimmer of sunshine.

The highpoint for me was Paka the Uncredible, a double act with a morose old man in aviator's glasses and a mechanical horse. This had poetry, invention, audience involvement and a pyrotechnic ending with old man Paka igniting the horse's nostrils, and mounting his steed with a blow torch in hand.  

It was hard also to resist the charms of Deep Sea Divers, a strolling surf band dressed in wet suits and flippers playing back-to-the-60s pop music.

Somewhat less satisfying were a pair of dancing giant prawns in body costumes that peeled off their outer shells and then peeled real prawns and cast them to the ground to striptease music.

One of the larger acts of the festival was Caravan of Desire, a 40-minute physical theatre show featuring two holidaymakers and a mechanically controlled caravan that elevated, tilted and sprouted vegetal appendages. The performance I saw was marred by delays and technical problems. In one unintentionally funny scene, the holidaymakers retired to the caravan for a bit of saucy fun. After a long interlude, with technicians running this way and that, the side of the caravan opened up to reveal the holidaymakers in erotic costumes along with a technician tinkering with an internal mechanism.

A real crowd-pleaser though was the Ramshacklicious, a music-filled street theatre show about old grandmother Nan who is carted around in a coffin by her three gypsy grandsons. She refuses to die until she sees at least one of them married - to a member of the audience. The foursome play musical instruments, sing, dance and do acrobatics and clowning. Nan's late husband makes a brief appearance as an animated face made up of food, with biscuits for eyelids and oranges for eyes. Reminiscing about their wedding night, the husband's banana-nose explodes, spilling goopy banana all over Nan's hair and dress.

We did not get to see all of the 18 shows in the festival. Among the shows we missed was the only ticketed act, an installation by French company KompleX KapharnauM, and a walkabout act called Microscopic Animal Enthusiasts. My daughter was particularly keen to see the latter, but we were unable to find it on the streets. Overall, however, we felt quite satisfied after 3 or 4 hours of street shows: it was a good day out at a family-friendly event, and we look forward to returning to Brighton again.

Reviews from X.trax Showcase in Manchester


Pickled Image

Bernard's Puppet Bonanza/The Marvellous Box Of Peeps and Delights


Monkey Business

X.trax Showcase/FEAST

Platt Fields Park


2 June 07

Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior

X.trax is an annual showcase of outdoor performance, geared towards the street arts industry but presented alongside Feast! Festival (this in its turn is presented by Manchester International Arts). So although it is for the most part the same work being seen, there is a difference in intention: whilst families picnic by the lakeside, leisurely taking in any strolling street acts that come their way, perhaps occasionally joining the audience around a static street show, delegates race around trying to catch all the shows circled on their programmes in between endless networking sessions, drinks receptions, meetings with old friends, or occasionally just sitting in the sunshine to catch breath. Oh life is hard sometimes.

Of course, puppetry has always played an important role in street arts (see, for example, articles in our new Animated Encounters publication!) and x.trax therefore included a number of puppetry shows, as well as physical theatre pieces which incorporated object animation to some degree (the Ramshakalicious show being an example; this reviewed by Animations at Streets of Brighton in this edition but was also seen in Manchester).

I will now confess that I failed to catch everything I wanted to, despite the festival's careful programming and timetabling - perhaps that is the inevitable experience of attending street arts festivals. Things run concurrently, things run a little late, or something happening at the falafel stall or by the swing boats becomes a sort of spontaneous theatre piece and you find yourself loitering rather than hurrying to your next destination. I was determined to see Nakupelle, but managed only to see the final third of Monkey Business. So I feel unqualified to comment very much on the show, other than to say that from what I did see, the puppet monkey was indeed very funky, manipulated with care and precision and full of energy; that I liked the use of the Commedia style half masks; that the visual aesthetic was lovely, the performance booth a kind of purple jack-in-the-box construction; and that the show had an old-fashioned (in the good sense of that word) ethos of pleasing a crowd with gently teasing words, visual humour, and music.

I fared better with Pickled Image, managing to see both their presentations. They are a two-person company, comprising Dik Downey and Vicky Andrews - he usually to be found upfront, she is the behind-the-scenes manipulator. One of their pieces was a static show in a wonderfully distressed traditional booth (more on that in a moment) and the other was a kind of walkabout piece - more precisely, The Marvellous Box Of Peeps and Delights is a 'What the Butler Saw' on wheels that is parked up on a busy corner, passers-by urged to sample its wares. In an admirable evocation of the days of the travelling showman, a spivvy Dik Downey urges us to Roll Up! Roll Up! and take turns peeping into the box. "Come along lads, here's your chance to see a real woman!" he barks, and to the ladies: "Don't you wish you had her charms?" Of course half the fun is in watching the theatre played out amongst the audience as teenage boys push each other forward, little girls giggle, and ladies of a certain age collapse into laughter when they look through the peephole to spy on Deloris the Devine, a beautifully crafted puppet of a certain age who no doubt was once the belle of the ball but is now a wee bit faded and jaded, but is still there after all these years, bumping and grinding. Like much good puppetry, it's all in the detail - Deloris is a delightful creature and I especially liked her rouged nipples, bouncing pearls and the fag dangling from her lips.

Pickled Image obviously have a liking for the mores of traditional public entertainments. Bernard's Puppet Bonanza is on one level a terrible denunciation of the sort of bad puppet show seen at many a seaside town. But of course in order to really subvert a form, you have to understand it - which is why many a Dodgy Punch Professor piss-take fails and Bernard succeeds. Our eponymous puppet-master is an old time entertainer; the last of a dying breed. We hear him before we see him, muttering and wheezing inside his booth. And what a work of art this booth is! The mahogany wood with nicotine yellow paper stuck to its side just perfect; the curtains exactly the right shade of burgundy red with tell-tale sun bleaching on the creases. There are faded photos peeling off from the sides, a clock showing the time of the next show, and when the curtains are eventually drawn back, we see the booth lit by a pair of lamps with tasselled shades perched at odd angles.

Bernard is played by Downey, clad in a grubby suit festooned with lapel badges and sporting a skewed bow tie. His face is an awful leering gurn of creases deep enough to grow vegetables in, distended earlobes and saggy jowls (a beautifully crafted latex mask in play here, I hasten to add). Bernard is the sort of children's entertainer we sadly encounter but rarely these days. He smokes a fat Havana cigar, makes unfunny jokes and spills water down his crotch (or at least that's what he claims it is). The children sitting on the floor in front of the booth are of course delighted with him. Much of the show is the preamble for the show-within-the-show. Once we actually get going on our puppet entertainment, inevitably everything that can goes wrong. Bernard loses the plot quite literally, carelessly shifting us from Red Riding Hood to Three Little Pigs because once there's a wolf involved there has to be pigs, surely? Things fall apart, the scratchy music discs are the wrong song or the wrong speed, and just when there seems to be nothing else to go wrong, a curl of smoke can be seen at the top of the booth. So where did Bernard leave his cigar? It's all great stuff, a treat for all the family, and a particular gift to anyone who loves puppetry but has spent one too many an afternoon watching geezers like Bernard plying their trade.

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