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Impressions of the World Festival of Puppetry in Charleville-Mezieres
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Animations brings you not one but two festival reports –
the first from Charleville veteran Penny Francis
and the second from Charleville virgin Kirsty Taylor

Penny Francis writes:

2009 brought a new dawn for the Festival, perhaps the biggest and most celebrated of all puppet festivals, founded by the late Jacques Felix in the 1960s and a magnet for every sort of manifestation of the world’s puppetry. This, the fifteenth edition, was blessed with a new Director, Anne-Marie Cabanis, (a miracle-worker), sunny weather which brought out the street performers and market stalls in profusion, punters in their thousands, a dizzyingly rich programme not only of shows but of exhibitions, meetings, debates, book launches, and one extraordinary gathering of vintage UNIMA glitterati in the Town Hall, come (some just for this occasion) from all over the globe. The event was to honour Jacques Felix, founder not only of the festival but of the Charleville International Institute of the Puppet, and another three personalities instrumental in making puppetry the world force it has become in the last fifty years. The three were Margareta Niculescu, a legend in her own time, the first Director of the Institute and founder of its School, ESNAM. Her achievements are too numerous to list here but she may take most of the credit for making Charleville the focal point of world puppetry. The second was Professor Henryk Jurkowski, whose contributions in terms of his books and other writings, his teaching and lecturing all over the world, have made the study of puppetry an accepted and increasingly respected subject for study in higher education The third was Michael Meschke from Sweden, a producer, performer-puppeteer, for many years director of Stockholm’s Marionetteatern, some of whose shows expanded the horizons of the art form as much as any practitioner alive.

I spent only four days traversing the pleasant streets of Charleville, seeing shows, and talking about the riches of British puppetry (of which there was not enough evidence here). Stephen Mottram performed his Seed Carriers to much acclaim, and there was a wonderful exhibition of some of the work of Edward Gordon Craig, but that was all. Colette Garrigan has for so long been immersed in francophone lands that she hardly counts as English now. Her semi-autobiographical version of Sleeping Beauty (Compagnie Akselere) is something of a tour de force, and I hope the tour extends to her native England one day soon.

In four days I could see only a fraction of what was going on, but from what I did see and from many conversations I can detect a couple of trends, and pick out some favourites and some I disliked.

As a theatre addict I go in the hope of a pleasurable experience, perhaps through intellectual or sensory stimulation, surprise, discoveries about people and the way the world wags, technical excellence and craftsmanship, self-recognition, insights into one’s own life and the life of others, beauty from several sources (the words, the scenography, the playing), flights of imagination, surprise – and so on. I worry when my nose is rubbed in human depravity, especially when at my age it is almost impossible to be shocked or titillated by any of it, as the spectator is surely meant to be. In addition, I worry about the research and rehearsal of the performers involved and the effect it may – must- have on them. Neville Tranter led the way with his clever revelations of this kind of toe-curling corruption, and in Charlevillle he added to his mounting score of such shows. More of this kind are creeping into the repertoire, and one by the French company DACM, Jerk, was an extreme example, arousing disquiet as to the motivation of the piece, which depicted the baser side of human nature (murder, sexual violence, necrophilia), using charming glove puppets to enact the scenario: children’s playthings put to the service of a psychopath. The actor, Jonathan Capdevielle, had brilliant vocal control, and the sounds he produced in the puppets’ enaction of various perversities seemed realistic to a disgusting degree – but I cannot help wondering how he was able to research and imagine such articulations.

A second piece by this company was an exercise in testing the tolerance of an audience, and indeed of the performers. A number of ‘showroom dummies’ (the name of the production being Showroom Dummies) were displayed as though waiting to be dressed and arranged for a shop window, or indeed for life, each in a seriously uncomfortable, contorted position. It soon became obvious that these were masked humans, not mannequins. The action consisted of the continual re-arrangement of some chairs and of the dummies’ posture by two male managers, in a meticulous and repetitive choreography, lasting over an hour. It was perfectly executed, but the endurance of the female performers (objectified, some almost immobile for the whole piece) was beyond imagining, and the health and safety of the spectators were seriously threatened both by the extreme boredom of the action (and non-action) of the dummies and by the decibel levels of the grossly amplified, ugly music. This, clearly, is what Artaud meant by a Theatre of Cruelty.  Etienne Bideau-Rey and Gisele Vienne, past graduates of the Charleville School, were the directors.

Duda Paiva is at present a popular presence on the puppetry circuit, another group with its roots in dance. Here too the execution was professional, as was the making and manipulation of the puppets (foam, often naked and worn on the performers’ body). The two shows I saw were very well received, relying for their admittedly puppetesque humour on a certain kind of overtly sexual ‘shock’ which I found crude, but was at heart typical of a vein of humour that runs through puppetry all over the world.

The Paper Body Collective was brought from Cape Town with an ambitious show called (In) Media Res, directed by Aja Marneweck and with a cast of seven puppeteer-performers. It interwove the stories of three very different characters, their commonality lying in their homelessness and their searching for a place to take root, the starting point being the myth of Leyto, made pregnant and cast out of her home by Zeus. Set against a large white screen on which were projected parched landscapes with endlessly trudging feet and a number of shadow figures. We followed the stories of a Zimbabwean refugee, a small tabletop figure, a lifesize white figure of a once rich white woman who had left her husband, and the goddess Leyto herself. In spite of the verbosity of the writing which seriously held up the story’s momentum, and some over-emphatic manipulation of the large woman character, the production had much to recommend it, both in its content and the surprises of the visual ideas.

Belgium was generally agreed to have brought lustre to the festival: among others were the TOF company, Mossoux-Bonte, Theater Taptoe, Gare Centrale (no puppetry here, as I expected, but an amusing two-hander with dolls’ house objects), Mireille and Mathieu, and the outstanding Point Zero with The School for Ventriloquists, widely praised. For late evening entertainment I recommend Taptoe’s toy theatre production of Genevieve, so Chaste, so Pure, to the piano music of Erik Satie. Performed as a salon entertainment for the Edwardian upper crust by an incompetent aristo family aided by their valet (Luk de Bruyker), I found it a welcome diversion.

Among the scores of market stalls and the hundreds of visitors could be found the street shows typical of the Charleville festival, with a special giant outdoor spectacular by Luc Amoros. Of all the French-Canadian productions the only one I saw was staged in a single-decker bus, L’Ubus Theatre, and was delightful, an inventive mix of small figures, masked humans and model scenery that delicately told the story of a modern Japanese girl and her aunt.

The stars of the festival included Stephen Mottram and the fabulous Frank Soehnle of the Tubingen theatre who performed the spectacular Salto.lamento and a piece based on Garcia Marquez’ story, Un Senor muy Viejo con unas Alas Enormes (A very old gentleman with huge wings), about a decrepit angel who falls to earth, here titled With Immense Wings. Played by three actors masked as village women and a beautiful puppet of the old, mistreated and suspect angel, I found it poetic but unsatisfactory, largely because it was played in unrelieved gloom. Set in a South American pueblo, surely the sun must sometimes have shone?

Finally, I must announce that after a longer and more painful incubation period than that of any dinosaur, the UNIMA Encyclopedia of World Puppetry Arts made its appearance, weighing in at about 5 kilos, in French, and looking impressive. Three copies will soon be in Britain: one in the library at the Central School of Speech and Drama (researchers may make an appointment to view the puppet books there – full details soon), one with Ray DaSilva and one on its way to British UNIMA, care of Meg Amsden, Chair. It’s a huge achievement. Now to work on the English version.

Jean-Luc Felix, son of Jacques and the new President of the Festival, you must be very proud: of your father, your town and your festival.

 

Kirsty Taylor writes:

As a first-time visitor to the Festival des Marionettes, I was unsure of what to expect of one of the largest puppet festivals in the world.  I felt I was as qualified an audience member as many, being an avid theatregoer, but compared to those experts and practitioners gathered in Charleville-Mezière from across the globe for the occasion, I was little versed in the puppetry arts.

I was unsure what to expect, but as each unique performance seen brought me further to the edge of my seat, I knew I need not have troubled my head trying to imagine. The wealth of human invention which played out before me at this World Cup of puppet festivals was enough to blow my pedestrian little play-watcher’s mind. Here was 10 days worth of artistry offered up by 120 companies hailing from 23 countries  – counting the shows in the programmed festival alone. Outside of this was an invited ‘Off Festival’ which saw the likes of animated giraffes, giants made of boulders, and friendly dragons prowling the Ardennes town’s main square. Enriching these spectacles were the travelling puppeteers who came to display dancing marionettes, booth shows to human sculptures forming their own unofficial festival on the cobbled streets.

The little town of Charleville-Mezière became animated itself by the characters walking its streets.  Prior to the festival’s first outing in 1961, the Ardennes town seems to have been most famous for being the cradle of Arthur Rimbaud – from which the writer then tried to escape by running away four times before his 17th birthday. Now, audiences flock from around the world to cram in to every gymnasium, church hall or caravan to witness the spectacles on offer.

 ‘Comme c’est charmant!’ the whole town seems to exclaim, and so was Yael Rasooly’s solo performance of the same name. Rasooly – a product of Charleville-Mezière’s International Puppetry Institute – was cute in this neat little piece about a girl attending a music lesson. The quirky tale, in which the young cello student’s fortunes take a drastic turn when she falls pregnant by her tutor, was nicely executed. Clever object theatre saw a battered cello case tower over her to form the figures of disapproving parents, and later an ominous man. Heartstrings were plucked as her instrument was then changed literally and figuratively into an infant curled in her lap.

This solo piece was followed by a female double-act presenting the delightful clowning of La Barbiere Singuliere (The One-of-a-kind Barber). Compagnie Alea turned a trip to the beauty parlour into slap-dash physical theatre. The two funny ladies did not miss a beat as they fooled around with size and perspective to hilarious comic effect. Each armed herself with a glove-puppet twin and set to battle on two different scales. The pair’s miniature avatars lifted the skit’s action from two scrapping ladies to a violently funny performance of Punch and Judy proportions.

At the opposite end of this festival’s sphere of talent was a show with a darker, more sinister atmosphere. Belgian genii Mossoux Bonté used found objects to transport their audience to an unsettling imagined landscape in Kefar Nahum – performer and company co-director Nicole Mossoux transforming everyday items into terribly convincing creatures with a turn of her hand.  Dozens of creations leapt forth from the darkness, with inspired movements matched to a machinistic electronic soundtrack and ethereal lighting making their presence larger than their form. Mossoux Bonte are repeat visitors to both the London International Mime Festival (who are presenting Kefar Nahum in January 2010) and Puppet Animation Scotland’s Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival in Edinburgh. They offer up an extraordinary attack on the senses – I was disorientated, I was stunned, I was hooked.

Equally off-the-wall, though this time driven by its own wacky plot, was Theatre Pour Deux Mains’ Voyage en Polygonie (Voyage to Polygonia).  Boiler-suited puppeteer Pascal Vergnault seemed in his element operating the grey oblongs of his pop-up set. He carried a little yellow polygon across the shifting plasterboard landscape to tell how in the world polygons, a chip in one’s edge is an unhappy fate. This bizarre children’s production followed the yellow hero, Quare, on his eventful quest to find little yellow triangle needed to make his shape complete. Vergnault’s opening stunt, where yellow retractable tapes were extended and sprung back quickly into the grey plane extracted gurgles of laughter from the young audience.  Further adventures using animated projections to portray a polygon Olympics and a mad chase to a jazz soundtrack were truly bizarre. But even when set within the randomness of Polygonia – these events seemed dissatisfying disjointed. Vergnault interacts well with his technology, but even when he cleverly catches Quares projected tears and pours them out in a watering can, nothing then grows from the ground. The ideas were bold and pleasingly simple, but lack of clear narrative left the piece on the wrong side of randomness for my tastes.

Moving an audience to tears is no mean feat – but The Arrival clearly tugged many heartstrings. Themes of family, absence and home moistened some spectators’ eyes during Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s sweet emigration tale. Stunning projected animation took hero Aki to a strange new land after fleeing his threatened home. Illustrator Shaun Tan’s backdrop brought the stunning landscapes of his original graphic novel to life, and Giri Mazzella’s polished performance as Aki saw him befriend unusual puppet creatures on his many adventures. Unfortunately, though they were well manipulated, the cuddly primary-coloured puppets looked a little too cutesy to sit well in the sweeping alien scenery. Aki’s faltering quest to find money, security and friends held the potential for a parabolic tale of venture and gain. But without a real sense of threat at the start of the story, we never fully grasp out traveller’s terror that forced him to abandon home and family. Panoramic cityscapes and cute tableaux did not translate into authentic characters or relationships, leaving the heartfelt performance strangely lacking an emotional core.

Braquage, on the other hand, was a tale skilfully told. Dexterous wit took centre stage as Compagnie Bakelite’s tale of a bank robbery was animated by countless different gadgets. Junk found in a garage was tweaked to enliven the tale. A collection of detergent bottles became the New York skyline and a video screen playing a pair of moving lips became the mouth of a passing gangster when suspended in a moving car door. Digital media was fused with automated detritus to awaken imagination in a piece that wowed because of its sheer ingenuity.

Such pieces caught my breath and exposed the endless possibilities of live performance. With seemingly endless invention on show, the visit to Charleville-Mezière made me feel like a person who had previously looked at paintings only in the dark and had suddenly found the gallery lights.

I realised that this world class puppetry was more than mere theatre, this was craftsmanship merged with dance, acting supported by kinetic art – this was the delight of seeing the world in a hundred surprising new ways.

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Festival Mondial des Theatres des Marionettes at Charleville-Mezieres in France took place 18–27 September 2009.

See www.festival-marionette.com

Image credits:
Top l to r:
Cie Bakelite, Braquage; Gordon-Craig exhibition; Les Anges au Plafond.

 

 

 



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