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Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009
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Reports of puppetry seen at the Fringe 09 by Darren East, Penny Francis, Gilbert Taylor, and Beccy Smith


Darren East writes:

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If puppetry at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe lacked the kind of centre point that the Hill Street venue provided in 2008, which featured several bold Polish puppetry performances, there was still plenty of puppetry about. It seemed more this year, however, that despite a few excellent examples (such as the River People’s Total Theatre award-winning Lily Through the Dark, developed to be clearer and less mannered than when it was shown here last year, and thus far more emotionally affecting) there was an abundance of tokenistic, slapdash or unambitious puppetry.

Splendid Productions’ Woyzeck, an otherwise surprising, entertaining, excellently performed and wittily constructed interpretation, threw in a puppet child at one point to disappointingly little purpose or effect. Stroke of Genius by PIT, an engagingly bonkers story of libraries, genetic supremacy and murder, also seemingly just wanted to check the puppet box.

There were one-person shows using glove puppets primarily, it seemed, to fill out the cast. Scamp Theatre’s Faust in the Box featured German performance artist Bridge Markland lip-syncing expertly to a recorded reading of an hour-long edit, in English verse translation, of Goethe’s Faust – interspersed with rapid-fire snippets of pop songs. Markland frequently swapped characters with a variety of glove puppets who appeared in, out, and on the cardboard box of the title. Faust in the Box had, by the end of the festival, become something of a shared benchmark for only-in-the-festival shockers. It could have made a quite amusing ten-minute sketch or a cabaret act, perhaps, with Faust occasionally singing that he still hadn’t found what he was looking for – and a seduction scene was witty and made some use of the implicit power dynamic between puppet and puppeteer. But over the length of the piece the device palled entirely, and the recorded voice became harder and harder to listen to. Markland’s mime and facial mugging, while unsubtle, were at least precise, but there was no similar skill in the puppetry – just relentless waggling – and no apparent logic in the switches between the scenes when a character was played by Markland and when by one of her puppets.

Mouche, arriving in Edinburgh from South Africa, written and directed by Laine Cole and performed by Tim Redpath with a collection of glove puppets, was adapted from Paul Gallico’s novella Love of Seven Dolls (the book also behind the film Lili and the musical Carnival!). The story is largely set among the travelling puppet theatre of the unpleasant Capitaine Coq, and concerns an eerily innocent young girl Mouche, who falls for the puppet characters – facets of their manipulator’s damaged personality – and interacts with them as though they were real.

Redpath is a likeable and engaging performer and storyteller, and playfully interacted with the audience and his cast of characters – voicing all the puppet characters as well as playing both the puppeteer and one of his charges. The conceit here was that Mouche herself was never represented – referred to and spoken to by other characters, but never visible. It might have worked if the rest of the storytelling was clearer, but as a gesture of absence or vulnerability it was weakened by the confusion around what of the rest of the show – and who – existed as the performance of the show within the show and what was either the backstage narrative or the backstory of the Capitaine. And, sadly, the puppetry itself was repetitive and shaky – the attractively-made figures rarely really did anything visually particular, and thus symbolised rather than inhabited their characters. We had to be told, and didn’t ever see what attracted the missing Mouche to the magic of the puppet show. The production was clearly driven by a real love for this strange redemption story, and was an earnest and bold attempt to share it, and with some more dramaturgical rigour and greater investment in the visual possibilities of puppetry, it could be much more satisfying.

Twine, a devised show for children by new, young, Edinburgh-based company Tortoise in a Nutshell, began with charming, confident, warm and only very slightly twee welcome to a household of storytellers, complete with a musician in the corner, tea, cakes and a cat. And when the cat knocked a ball of twine into the story-brewing teapot, the story of Twine – played by a rod puppet made of string – ensued. However, having gone to the trouble of setting up the world of the storytellers, and given even the musician an identity as Uncle Claude, the taciturn Frenchman, it was disappointing to have an old-fashioned ‘invisible’ black-clad puppeteer arrive to operate Twine. Twine’s travelling adventures – by land, sea and hot-air balloon – were colourfully staged, but ultimately the story was a bit thin, and a bit too gentle and controlled. It sometimes felt that at the edges of the narrative there were glimpses of more awkward elements (a rowdy crowd, a group of witches), who might have been more fun to be with than the protagonist. Twine’s was a story without clear consequences or strong choices – just a sequence of events, and symptomatically the puppet didn’t speak or communicate, and was repeatedly defined by what he couldn’t do, which eventually felt like an anxiety about puppetry that the company clearly don’t feel about storytelling. In a similar way, without a narrative purpose, the Treetop Circus in search of an audience that Twine visited towards the end of his travels ended up feeling like a staging of a classic Edinburgh worry! But this is a company with a great deal of skill and potential.

Also billed for children was the Paper Cinema’s production of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Their technique of visibly constructing a film with small paper cut-outs, lamp-lit and operated in front of a camera and projector to be thrown onto the screen above, seemed apt for a tale that begins with the very practical rigour of confident Victorian industry and brave imperial exploits. The performance was wordless throughout, accompanied by emotive live music from Kieron Maquire, with tiny text hints supplied occasionally with on-screen glimpses of newspaper headlines and signs.

At first it was fun to watch the two ‘performers’ at the projector produce equivalents of film-effect-like cuts, dissolves and pans simply by manipulating the intricate paper cut-outs and the light sources (as well as occasional direct physical animation with moveable paper pieces, for paddling of canoes, and such repetitive movements). But it gave diminishing returns, and was disappointingly ineffective at the high-action moments, especially the ‘point-of-view’ (POV as they say in the film trade) or grand wide shots – there being a sort of fractal effect where each degree of magnification had a similar weight, presence and density on-screen, unlike with film itself (but intriguingly similar to some CGI, where – for example – large objects can appear strangely weightless). This made the story not only difficult to follow, narratively and emotionally, but also more inconsequential than was surely intended. And when the paraphernalia of the theatre was entirely constrained to the laws of film – nothing ever strayed outside the boundaries of the screen, and the performers had no presence other than as technical operators and musical accompaniment – it felt like a missed opportunity for something more radical or more entertaining.

The Lamplighter’s Lament, by Rich Rusk (which appears to be an offshoot of Gomito), was billed as a show for all ages, and again began with a welcome from three endearing storytellers, one gently playing the guitar. All three of them played the Lamplighter, a lonely, mysterious figure who both brought and extinguished sparks of light in this sweet and gentle exploration of grief, for the loss of a young woman (a daughter, a wife?) who travelled to sea with the Lamplighter and drowned. The Lamplighter was also, far less effectively, at times played by a rod puppet who did little more than double the human action, and was often ironically poorly lit.  Stronger on mood and imagery than on narrative or meaning, and sometimes rather repetitive, the piece, wordless after the initial introduction, had moments of visual brilliance: the drowning puppet woman, washed away by a plastic sheet sea; the visit of her ghost; a gramophone player made by a human finger dropped onto a mimed disc; and best of all a live ‘film’, as the lamplighter set up a projector (of wire and umbrellas) and repeatedly, wretchedly, watched a small clip of the dead woman, played live by her puppet.

Less pleasing were the relentless recorded music, which, while often very beautiful and atmospheric, made the piece feel more episodic than it could have been, and the just-not-quite-enough story – more time with the storytellers, very appealing at the beginning, would have been good. The lack of specificity of narrative, time or place made the piece feel as though it was sentimentally straining, finally, for emotion, rather than letting the story carry itself – for there was ample pathos to be had in the simple metaphors of watching the light of a loved one be extinguished, and saying goodbye.


Penny Francis writes:

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The number of performances including puppetry in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2009 beggars belief. After several days in Edinburgh I was still discovering shows with puppets that I’d missed. With three or four reporters covering for Animations we won’t cover them all – how things change.

While we who are puppet freaks may rejoice at this proliferation, we have some reasons to mourn too: some of the puppetry betrays an ignorance of the demands (techniques mostly) of the medium. Directors, dramaturgs, designers and performers are all in my firing line. They are working with a medium for which they’ll have had precious little preparation at drama or art school, but that is surely going to change, as more training is becoming available, and Craig’s and Shaw’s dictum that every drama school should have puppetry in the curriculum is getting through.

One piece, Origins, fell down on the design; another, Forgotten Things, on the performing; Hansel and Gretel fell on both counts and others too.

Origins, by Pentabus, directed by Orla O’Loughlin, and with puppetry by Blind Summit, had suffered the loss of its lead actor through illness, but recovered momentum through his replacement, the talented Sam Taylor, who looked and sounded convincing, even with script in hand. There was a puppet baby and toddler that looked like a small elephant man, with a huge featureless head like a white punchbag. One remembers the white pillow baby and soft white toddler in Complicité’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – the same idea, only the design of the latter was aesthetically attractive, where the Pentabus puppet was not.

The Red Ladder company produced Forgotten Things, a meaty piece of stylised theatre, the style being Commedia but with text, which I found original and intriguing. Two of the stars were the scenographer and the set builder: Sara Perks and Andy Wood respectively, who created a set with a rear breezeblock wall and a hollow floor, both with unexpected openings which swallowed or ejected the performers. Of the four performers the two women were excellent. If Stephen Mosley had not done a superb job of voicing and lip-synching the half-body puppet he manipulated – no, carried is a better word here – I would be critical of his physicality with the figure, which was uncontrolled. The puppet’s head was that of a staid, excessively brainy, elderly psychoanalyst, whose flailing right arm was that of an over-excited human actor! The director, John Barber, must share the blame for this, but the head of the puppet which he made was so excellently designed and constructed that I must forgive him and ask him to improve the puppetry for the show’s future touring life.

Unpacked’s Jumping Mouse had a slight touch of the over-excitement virus too, and the temperature could be cooled a little. The story and the staging were unusual and even adventurous, and the playing of the three actor-puppeteers – Zoe Hunter, Gilbert Taylor and Clare Dunn – sustained the momentum of the tale about a mouse who learned to jump in order to reach the heights, metaphorically and physically. Darren East provided a sensitive background of sound and music which made a strong contribution to the liveness and liveliness of an enjoyable romp. The role and the appearance of the only human puppet character need an urgent re-think, however, and it could be more sensitively manipulated. 

A semi-professional company called About Turn presented a poor version of Hansel and Gretel saved only by its original music and the talented musicians, all six of the cast. The acting and the puppeteering need a lot of work, and the two puppet protagonists looked like a yellow-skinned old couple with weird feet and hands. Distressing.

Shitty Deal Puppets’ Oh What a Shitty War was refreshing and funny: an array of cute glove puppets and dolls – everything from Sooty to Barbie and Sesame Street in between – satirising Life and the entire History of Europe, showing mankind as stupid and violent, but somehow raising a barrage of laughter along the way. To criticise the manipulation or the aesthetics would be entirely to miss the point.

On an entirely different level in terms of artistry, puppetry, scale and – crucially – budget, the main Edinburgh International Festival presented the Handspring/Kentridge/Ricercar Consort version of Monteverdi’s exquisite baroque opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. Impossible to over-praise any part of it: the great rod puppets of all the characters, designed and carved by the peerless Adrian Kohler; the breathtaking manipulation by Kohler and Basil Jones; the extraordinary (but  sometimes intrusive) animated charcoal drawings of William Kentridge shown on a high rear screen; the playing and singing – all were unforgettable. The figure of Penelope was the epitome of beauty, dignity and calm, as only a puppet can be.
Penny Francis

Gilbert Taylor writes:
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Gothic genre show Lilly Through the Dark by River People Theatre is an hour’s adventure to the underworld. Lilly, a ‘matter of fact and no messing’ puppet who won the hearts and minds of the audience, is so distressed by the death of her father that through an act of self harm (wrist slitting, impressively done using red ribbons that made me feel queasy), she attempts to follow him. The action, then, takes place in the space between life and death – the Deadlands – where she meets a variety of dubious characters, such as The Memory Collector, and is pursued by the evil Rottenpockets who does everything in his power to stop Lilly from seeing the light before she is drawn back to the land of the living.

There is a lot of magic going on amongst the set of a thousand stage-built books, and plenty of exaggerated facial expressions and whirling Victorian tattered skirts. I felt as if this was just one fairy tale that the company could have told out of the huge pile of books on the stage and may have preferred it more had they picked into other myths to either parallel or contradict the central story, if only to provide a contrast to the constant axe of death cutting its way through the Bedlam Theatre.

The influences here are many, and range from Orpheus in search of Eurydice to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. There is a fantastic sketch with a puppet/human Tweedledum and Tweedledee like duet; and refeences to Tim Burton movies, and to Shockheaded Peter.
The show reluctantly encourages a determination to live rather than give up and die, and is steeped in melancholy. But the performances by the company are full of bravado and energy and the ensemble are accurate and tight in their execution. This is a company that will sweep up at future festivals (and indeed they have already won a Total Theatre Award for best emerging company). Their puppetry style has great potential for further subtlety and can afford to give more in place of the constant mugging of the actors.
The moral of their tale may well be that as time goes by, memory fades but this certainly not true of many of the inspired and inspiring moments seen on stage!

Sambor Dudzinski is one of Poland’s leading artists. An actor, poet, musician, composer and self-styled ‘Art Warrior’ likened by critics to Jamiroquai, Prince and Bobby McFerrin. The Time(less) Machine is a pre-WW2 horse-drawn field rake transformed into a music machine. It consists of numerous instruments from around the world, from a piano to a didgeridoo. It enters with Dudzinski who peddles it into the auditorium and uses it to combine rich and diverse improvisations with his own musical compositions and the words of Polish poets, including Tuwim, Brzechwa and Bia?oszewski. The creation itself is a work of art.
At first the machine seems to act quite literally as a vehicle for Dudzinski to demonstrate his vast range of accomplished skills. But as he conducts the hour away dressed in frockcoat, britches, white hat and boots, the machine takes on many characters of its own as it lurks upstage; a decrepit figure of experience guffawing at the young performer, an awkward and clumsy teenager embarrassed by its very size and inability to blend in to its surroundings, and even an elegant ballerina.
Music is the essential component of his performance – music ranging from Chopin to jazz. Many instruments are conjured up from this machine from the didgeridoo to the percussion loop as well as the machine itself which creaks and cranks at the slightest touch, almost as if complaining to Dudzinski for wrenching it out of retirement.
At one point Dudzinski dresses himself in a plain white Venetian mask and climbs through the audience to sit with them and watch the machine as it continues to gently rock from their last encounter. He seems particularly keen to sit on and frolic with the ladies.
Finally, he creates a piece of music including words the audience have suggested, and rhythms they have created using percussion instruments. This is sampled, put together and he sings on top of this backing. We are all now part of the band and want to follow him back to Poland as he exits via a three point turn to stage right. The show is an unusual yet thrilling experience.

In a Fringe so embedded in death it was a relief to see The Man who Planted Trees, a show that made you feel good about being alive. This is a fantastic piece of theatre. It is based on Jean Giono's story about a poor shepherd in France who dedicated his life to planting thousands of trees in a fairly desolate area, completely transforming the landscape and the lives of the people who lived there, without ever seeking reward or recognition.

Puppet State frames this with banter between storyteller Jean, played by Richard Medrington, and a puppet dog called Dog, operated and voiced by Richard Conte. The conversations between Jean and Dog that link the story together are hilarious, with Medrington as the straight man to Dog's great gags.

The puppetry is superb and the puppets well crafted by Ailie Cohen, who also directs. Some are cute and cuddly, like the dog who is all too well aware of his predicament but is nevertheless relieved that that man behind him is still there; some are just plain funny, like the bouncing cotton-wool-like balls of sheep hanging on the end of a rod.

We even get to enjoy the smells of the French countryside as the performers waft lavender essential oil over the audience with a large fan, and we experience rain and mist with the aid of a water sprayer.

This was one of my favourite shows of the Fringe (where it was appearing for at least the third year in succession). It has equal appeal to kids and to adults, who all leave the theatre knowing that something special has just happened. The show’s 2010 dates include an extensive overseas tour, with a large number of dates in the USA – entertaining of course, but also promoting the warmth that human nature can create between people and countries.

Taking its title from an observation by the composer Arnold Schoenberg, I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am, created by Tom Duggan, Tom Lyall, and Mischa Twitchin, and seen at the Forest Fringe as a work-in-progress, is a half-hour of near darkness that allows you to lose yourself in what feels like an experiment in ‘liveness’. It is described as a performance that ‘draws on the archive of modernism, where the shadow of politics is preserved within the abstractions of art’. Repeated fragments of Arnold Schoenberg’s voice and music, radio reportage, political speeches and gramophone adverts from the 1930s fill the darkness, as do moments of hand gestures that appear from a specially constructed chest-of-drawers, lit very dimly. The music Verklärte Nacht is deliciously crackly with age, as is the rest of the selection of music composed or arranged by Schoenberg. There is a feeling of nostalgia for early twentieth-century politics and a crumbling 1930s Europe is romanticised through the distortions of both sound and sight. Towards the end, there is a terrific blaze, a frenzy of flames which comes at you from out of the dark, where for a second the audience is genuinely delighted by the sheer panic of ‘is this meant to be happening?’. The imagination races throughout and with the audience packed in like cattle, it felt like we were at a secret society. All of this was seemingly unintentional, but heightened my enjoyment of the experience.

Beccy Smith writes:
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Tixi and Moxo: A Colourful Adventure by Compagnia Teatro Instabile, (Radisson on the Mile) aims to be a zany and indeed ‘colourful’ canter through the imaginary adventures that ensue when the cast of lead characters of a girl’s favourite, long running fantasy children’s magazine breaks into the real world.

Sadly, when these characters are performed in pidgin English (whose strange grasping pauses and a odd grammar do not add up to a sort of pseudo grammelot, not matter how much their PR would like it make it so) by over-age actors wearing prosthetic limbs made out of inflatable rubber gloves rather more than the average child’s level of imagination is required.

The company magpies from an array of theatrical traditions – magic, song, balloon animals, audience participation and some glove puppetry of the under-the-jacket variety.  The whole thing seems inspired by assort of loose commedia.  All are executed even-handedly with an equal and utter absence of thoughtfulness, commitment or skill. 

The glove puppet sequence which, in a nice play of scale, introduced us to one of the journal-sized antagonists was really rough.  Not in itself a problem but as with much of this show the intention was clearly driving at ‘magical’ and falling far short.  It’s frustrating to see puppetry tokenly paraded out of the box of visual theatre tricks without any apparent preparation or training to support its use.  But at least in Compagnia Teatre Instabile’s case this poverty of preparation wasn’t exclusively reserved for the puppetry.  And at least it didn’t leave one if the audience member in hysterical floods of tears, as did one of the most thoughtlessly ill-judged pieces of audience participation I’ve ever witnessed.  According to their website this company have been making work together for nearly a decade Surely everybody involved can do better than this?

Chotto Ooki are an ambitious young company with a distinctive vision that uses traditional and detailed mime work to tell largely wordless tales of dysfunctional individuals in a paranoid world.   Their first show And Even my Goldfish successfully fused these elements by making a virtue of scale and economy: a simple, contained scenario, a focused setting in which to crystallise their colourful, absurd and humane physical performances and theatrical images. 

In Sweet, their third production (seen at C Venues), they have clearly intended to advance their aesthetic with the creation of a wider world, greater complexity in characterisation and situation. This is a complex love affair: a bureaucratically oppressed office worker, somehow haunted by the figure of his own conscience (or perhaps his heart) played as a sort of enthusiastic bon viveur, falls for the saccharine owner of a bakery, who seems to suffer form some sort of OCD about cakes, when he meets her during a chance encounter and attempts desperately to earn her affections. Their conflicted love afraid is overshadowed by the undefined threat of faceless trench-coated agents who hover in the background like the love police with no plausible reason to make an arrest. It’s saying something that it’s the entirely metaphorical character who comes across as the clearest and most engaging of the bunch. 

The stylised aesthetic of their work converses well with the expressive language of puppetry, of which they make inventive use.  A tiny table-top love scene if delicately played, though using the most bizarrely ugly figures – all head and feet and odd proportions, to no purpose I could make out (perhaps some comment on the beer goggles of love? but it felt less intentional). An array of objects when they appear are invested with poetic significance such as the elegiac drifting away of a surreal pink balloon and the rhythm of these pleasing images is well judged.

Sadly the simplicity of these moments is often bogged down within a convoluted plot and manner and the story and characters are simply too complex to be rendered satisfactorily by the visual and physical poetic the company are reaching for. There are the beginning of lots of interesting ideas here but Chotto Ooki need to think hard about how best to play with the form they are developing 



Everything Must Go: Or the Voluntary Attempt to Overcome Unnecessary Obstacles, by Kristin Fredrickson/Beady Eye Productions (St Augustine’s) is a performance eulogy and a celebration; a chance to complete unfinished work; space to take stock of a single life, its trials and hopes; a daughter’s tribute to her father, whose recent death robbed him of the chance to perform in this piece. 

It didn’t, however, prevent him from appearing as the star of the show.   Using various techniques from sharing old home-movies, to large and small-scale puppetry, to object animation, the stage is populated by the changing figures of the man and his belongings (the show is ostensibly framed by Fredrickson’s house clearance) invested with the emotional charge of his memory. Puppetry’s uneasy presence obviously lends itself well to this project. The quiet presence of an observing life-size figure, finally mirrored in footage of an earlier rehearsal where her father joins her from the auditorium in a slow dance (in drag) is a quietly confident coup de théâtre characteristic of the show as a whole.

Other puppetry is handled with equal sensitivity, including some delicate and satisfyingly priapic object storytelling and a wonderfully material rendering of grief in the sudden suggestion of a moribund figure within piles of rolled fabric (although in both cases the logic of the selected objects themselves was not entirely clear).  

The absence at the heart of the piece centres it, like the eye of a whirlpool, spinning us inexorably through a dizzying array of performance styles and techniques. Fredrickson ranges through direct address, impersonation, physical (and gymnastic!) demonstration, model theatre (of a kind), lecture demo and of fashioned acting (most poignantly of her teenaged self.  All this diversity serves ultimately to illustrate the impossible tensions and ellipses contained within a life (hi)story. In the end, it is Fredrickson’s love and longing, and his palpable absence, that are the most material qualities which her delicate performance and thoughtful puppetry amply convey.   

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see also Sound and Vision by James F Foster in the Features section of this edition
For more on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe see www.edfringe.com


IMAGES:

Top to bottom:

Scamp Theatre – Faust in the Box

Red Ladder – Forgotten Things

Tom Duggan, Tom Lyall, and Mischa Twitchin – I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am

Kristin Fredrickson/Beady Eye Productions – Everything Must Go


 

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