On Theatre in association with Blind Summit
Soho Theatre, London
8 December 2008
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
On Emotion is one of a series of ‘theatre essays’, written and directed by Mick Gordon, with a question as their starting point. In this case, the play (if I am allowed to call it that – it is a play, after all) has been written in collaboration with neurophyschologist Paul Broks, and the question asked is: ‘Are we just the puppets of our emotions?’
Enter the play’s four characters: Stephen, a cognitive behavioural therapist (played by James Wilby); Stephen’s actress daughter Lucy (Rhian Blythe); Anna, her puppet-maker friend (Caroline Catz); and Mark, Stephen’s son – described as a young man at a slight angle to the universe (played by Mark Down – see Mark’s diary on the making of this piece in this edition of AO).
What ensues is a psychological drama – perhaps even a neurpsychological drama, who knows? – a tangled web of stories circling around an exploration of the interpersonal relationships of these four characters (who are, in their various combinations and configurations: parent/child; siblings; friends; lovers and/or fantasy lovers – I’m not quite sure where fantasy ended and reality checked in with this last one!]. Layered on to this are the emotional responses of other characters to those relationships, and responses to the witnessing of those responses – then the writer/director also chooses to use the postmodern device of the characters freezing mid-sentence and enacting their inner thoughts, layering this with sequences of non-verbal visual theatre that seem for the most part to represent the fantasies or imagination of the characters. Sex, jealousy, betrayal and anger all feature heavily, as they would I suppose. It’s exhausting just listing all this onstage emotional baggage!
So, does it all work? Yes and no. I may be demonstrating a long-held prejudice against ‘New Writing’ here, but I do find it hard to understand why the characters have to ‘act out’ the stories in this way, and consider the tacking on of visual theatre tricks and turns to psychological drama to be a bit jarring, beautiful though these sequences are.
Too often I find myself refusing to ‘believe in’ or understand the characters. By setting up a situation in which we have supposedly ‘real’ characters played on a stage, people whose motives we are supposed to understand or at least engage with, we find ourselves constantly challenging their ‘realness’ in a way that we wouldn’t even start to do in a devised theatre piece that allowed for the existence of an alternative world of (for example) archetypes, clown personae, and story narrators on a stage.
It is also very odd and a little unsettling to have puppets playing – well, puppets – in a drama about a puppeteer which uses puppetry as a rather tired and overworked symbol of ‘manipulation’.
Having got that off my chest, I’ll get on to the good things. Wonderful scenography, set design, and use of the Soho Theatre’s stage space from designer Nick Barnes working hand-in-hand with director Mick Gordon. The starry backdrop is beautiful, providing the perfect setting for one of the main story threads, in which an autistic teenage boy looks to astronomy and fantasies of space travel (cue Star Trek theme!) as his escape from the trials and tribulations of daily life (not least the barrage of all the emotional detritus that surrounds him).
Mark Down as that boy (also called Mark) is superb. Animations readers will be familiar no doubt with his track-record as a puppeteer and theatre-maker with Blind Summit, and of course his performance skills were very evident in their much-toured show Low Life, but here he really shines as an actor.
The ‘Mark’ character’s alter-ego is a magnificent puppet spacewalker – this also down to the other half of Blind Summit, Nick Barnes. And under the company’s guidance, the non-puppeteer actors play their parts well in the visual sequences.
So plenty to recommend this production, and no regrets about the time spent in Soho Theatre as, apart from the opportunity to once again appreciate the great talents of Blind Summit, it provided plenty of food for thought on the nature of theatre.
But ultimately, my view of the piece was greatly affected by the fact that I just didn’t buy the central premise, and that was a big sticking point in my willingness to suspend disbelief and enter the world created onstage.
Pavilion Theatre, Brighton
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
There are puppet shows a-plenty that tell wartime stories. This is understandable as the special qualities of puppets allow for a ‘safe’ investigation of the aspects of human life that are the most difficult to come to terms with. Particularly, with shows aimed at younger audiences, there is the opportunity to tell historical stories with puppetry that draw the young person into the evidence of man’s inhumanity to man in a way that is perhaps less traumatic than the same information presented in the medium of naturalistic theatre or in documentary film.
Thingumajig Theatre’s November Day is one such story. The show has been made in association with Imperial War Museum North, and marks the 90th anniversary of the ending of the First World War. Subtitled ‘two men, a dog and a war between them’, it tells the story of one survivor’s memories of the conflict and his unexpected encounter with a stray dog who belongs in both camps, the English and the German – building on the stories we all know of fleeting friendships between occupants of the trenches, on both sides of the divide (many people of my generation – the over 40s – were brought up on stories of their grandfathers in the trenches, with Christmas Day ceasefires and football matches a key element of those stories). Using archive material and family history as the starting point, November Day has been devised by the company (performers Kathy Bradley and Andrew Kim), with some outside direction from Mark Whitaker.
It is a lovely piece of puppet theatre, enhanced by simple and gentle verbal and visual storytelling, clever puppetry that uses scale particularly well, and live music (from the two multi-talented performers). The set is a collection of soft cloths in autumnal colours (rusts, browns, and faded rose petal pinks) together with a number of wooden boxes that transform into all sorts of things – trenches, kitchen tables, the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall…
If there’s a criticism, it is that at times the show seems unsure of who it is addressing. The publicity material states that it is for age 10 upwards, and I saw the piece presented in the evening to an adult and teenage audience, yet there were times that I felt talked down to a little, and I was sometimes aware of a sentimental note creeping in to the narrative. It’s a difficult balance – finding a way to address both children and adults with equanimity. Richard Meddrington hits the spot perfectly in Puppet State’s The Man Who Planted Trees, which also addresses difficult histories – and I feel that Thingumajig, though wonderful puppeteers and performer/musicians, could do with a little more help on the writing and storytelling.
That said, there are many wonderful moments in this piece: weeks later, I am still haunted by an image of sorry-looking little wooden pegs dowsed in mud (wounded soldiers, picked out of their tin bath by a nurse who handles them with such loving care that it is heartbreaking). A knitted yellow scarf from ‘back home’ morphs from human-size to tiny puppet-size, and becomes symbolic of the cross-border wordless relationship between the soldiers – and plays a key role in the painful dénouement of the piece. And the old grandfather puppet who refuses to tell his tales is a lovely character.
The show was well researched, well presented and very well received by its audience, and has, I feel, the potential for a long touring life. But if the opportunity for some further artistic development for the production were possible, this would make it even better. This is a company that would thrive and grow to ever-greater success with a little more outside help.
Beggarsbelief and the Arcola Theatre
Tombstone Tales and Boothill Ballads
Arcola Theatre, London
29 Nov 2008
Reviewed by Beccy Smith
This alternative Christmas fare offered by the Arcola Theatre seemed to be trying belatedly to jump on the bandwagon of BAC’s Christmas musicals of the early noughties. Similarly written by Carl Heap, and with a few familiar members of the cast, the work as a whole felt a rather outdated rehash of old ideas and aesthetic.
Heap has set his storytelling cabaret in nineteenth-century mid-west America, exploiting the open-plan scale of the Arcola mainhouse to devise a sort of free-form speakeasy cum desert vista across which saunter, sashay and tap dance the resurrected inhabitants of Tombstone City’s overstuffed graveyard. Eschewing the well-known dramatic stories of Wyatt Earp and his brothers for lesser known tales of the dear departed we are treated to a promenade of catastrophe, steeped in the drawl, and dust and twang of the Wild West.
It’s a somewhat unwieldy concept to shoehorn into north London’s coolest venue on a freezing November evening, as testified by the overlong preamble that framed the piece and slowed its start, and the accents’ unfortunately persistent habit of heading East. The form attempted to integrate textbook physical theatre tricks, combining ensemble work, quick changes, knockabout physical play and a ’let’s do the show right here’ mentality with Heap’s pedestrian rhyming couplets (in unfortunately stark contrast to the witty libretto Ben Glasstone has provided for the Little Angel’s Christmas show, The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, which I saw on the same day).
It’s good to see that puppetry is an established enough element of this language to render its presence here inevitable. The rough animation and shadow work sat well within the overall form and highlighted some of the more thoughtful qualities of the staging. Large shadows, mostly human, were used effectively to contribute moments of the grotesque (a towering grim reaper; a scalping) and used effectively musically to puncture turns in the rhyme. There was a well-cast object animation scene featuring shot glasses as drunks, which also set the scene in terms of scale for a vision of a tiny stagecoach attempting to traverse an expanse of desert.
There was nothing new here, and at two-and-a half-hours, with its tongue pushed firmly in cheek, it was difficult for the piece to go beyond anything other than a superficial engagement with any of the stories, despite committed performances from the cast. Ultimately, the puppetry hinted at a theatrical promise which the piece as a whole failed to keep.