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> The Ring of the Nibelung: A Magic Lantern
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from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007
> Between The Devil & The Deep Blue Sea
> Puppetry at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
2007 Roundup review
National Theatre, London
28 November 2007
Reviewed by Beccy Smith
Casting a (puppet) horse as the lead on the Olivier stage is an artistic gamble that marks a pivotal moment in the National Theatre’s increasing recognition of the part visual and physical theatre now plays in this country’s artistic mainstream. This production then, deserves plaudits simply for its artistic chutzpah, but what’s most satisfying is that the form has been fully embraced – there’s nothing tokenistic here.
Handspring have brought to the collaboration not only quite incredibly designed figures, on a grand scale, but a puppetry aesthetic that has been worked into the whole production. In the show’s early Cornish scenes, rustic tableaux are shaped by performers holding large branches, forming pens and corners; later, cut-out paper cranes sway over the beaches of France; trench sequences are animated by drawing sketches and shadows. The creative team have risen to this challenge. Toby Sedgwick’s movement makes puppets of bodies as well as bodies of puppets, the dead transmuting into inanimation as maimed figures or, most hauntingly, as stiff corpses that rise up in unexpected places, whilst Marianne Elliott’s and Tom Morris’s stage pictures feel themselves fully animated, with controlled use of the revolve and projection supplementing the reach of puppetry movement and creating a fluid, choreographic approach to matching the Olivier’s huge scale. Rae Smiths’s ripped slash of a cyclorama succeeds in objectifying its project landscapes – as it scrolls through its circumscribed area, the sky itself becomes subject.
The horse puppets are astonishing. Their rough aesthetic gives a sense of nature’s grace, in contrast to the monochrome metal and blood world of France. The construction is incredibly detailed: every muscular flex has been lovingly recreated, allowing for fantastically observed movement. Every twitch and shiver is there, which begins to allow us to read the horses as characters on the stage. This will always be difficult when there are human characters to speak and stage pictures to read (and I felt sometimes the company overcompensated by feeding the emotion through their occasionally overly swelling soundtrack), and perhaps represented the biggest challenge presented by stripping the horses of the voices in Morpugo’s original. But the seeds are there in the masterful puppetry from the puppeteers on stage (yes, actual puppeteers) and thoughtful direction. There is a visual and physical language that speaks in this production – and so, from a puppetry perspective, the waggling daemons of the National Theatre’s His Dark Materials production have been truly put to rest.
The Ring of the Nibelung: A Magic Lantern Spectacular
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
8 October 2007
Reviewed by Matthew Isaac Cohen
Today more an object of nostalgia than a means of performance, the magic lantern is often described as an in-between technology on the way from shadow puppetry to the cinema. In the nineteenth century magic lanterns were ubiquitous in education and entertainment, illustrating lectures, aiding magicians and charlatans in the creation of phantasmagoria and popularising works of fine art. Displays of magic lanterns in public theatres are today rare events, though the art has been revived by dedicated amateurs and a handful of professionals in continental Europe and elsewhere.
This performance by the German company Illuminago in collaboration with English magic lantern showman ‘Professor’ Mervyn Heard began with a half hour overview of the history of the magic lantern, including a magic lantern telling of the poem Percy the Pig and a sequence illustrating a nineteenth-century grand tour of Europe replete with exploding fireworks. The performance then proceeded to a screening of hand-painted slides created in 1887 by magic lantern showman Paul Hoffmann. These were painstakingly traced from and coloured after paintings made for the original Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring cycle by landscape painter Josef Hoffmann. Live piano accompaniment, bi-lingual (German-English) narration and excerpts from Wagner’s music were presented with much skill. Most of the Ring slides lacked magical effects, though the few that were included, such as the flickering appearance of a Valkyrie on a flying horse, were memorable. The evening concluded with an illuminated skirt dance in the style of Loie Fuller, and, a magic lantern standard, a graveyard scene with dancing skeletons and ghosts to the accompaniment of Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.
Audience at the night I attended was limited to a few score of Wagner devotees and the historically curious, and it is my feeling that much of the intimacy, charm and humour of this revival was lost in the sombre and expansive environment of the Linbury Studio Theatre. It was nonetheless a pleasure to actually witness a performance of this rare art, and the medium’s latent theatrical potential was very evident.
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
Basil Twist is a third-generation American puppeteer who works mostly in New York City. He is renowned worldwide (winner of three UNIMA Awards for Excellence in Puppetry) for his experimental visual theatre/puppetry work, and known to UK audiences for The Araneidae Show (seen at the London International Mime Festival a few years back).
Dogugaeshi is a stage mechanism that serves as a backdrop to traditional Japanese folk puppet theatre. A series of delicately painted screens slide open to reveal image after image in rapid succession. Dogugaeshi’s history is intrinsically linked to that of Japanese puppetry; the word ‘dogugaeshi’ literally means ‘set change’, and that is the essence of the form, although it is also used as a technique in other Japanese performance forms.
So what do we get when we bring Twist and Dogugaeshi together? The answer is something that is beautiful and terribly clever, which manages to keep the intrinsic qualities and techniques of the traditional form intact whilst embracing contemporary visual iconography and imagery.
The project started when Twist visited Japan and discovered that here was a tradition of work that had much in common with his contemporary techniques. The piece has no linear narrative, is not representative of any one story or idea, yet is filled with stories, told through the sensory spectacle of constantly changing images. It is essentially a game of revelation and concealment, as images bow in and bow out, a kind of instant animation effect, sometimes 2D – like living wallpaper or a big colourful flickerbook – at other times playing with the third dimension, perspective shifting with the eye, taking in the opening-up depths (some real 3D effects, some an illusion created by the screens or by the video projection used with them). As the screens slide out and in (with an earthy, embodied clunkiness that I love), a parallel universe landscape builds; a place where traditional Japanese woodcuts and drawings, contemporary Manga and Anime, impressions of modern day Tokyo, and icons of twentieth-century design all inform the images that slide back and forth. Imagine a Toy Theatre twenty-plus layers deep, with no cardboard characters, just sets, and you start to get the idea (and yes I did peer round the flats after the show, and gave up counting the runners holding the screens when I got to twenty).
The visual spectacle is augmented by the beautiful ‘gidayu’ music of Yumiko Tanaka, Twist’s collaborator in this project. Like Twist, Tanaka straddles the world between traditional form and contemporary practice, her live shamisen playing blending effortlessly with the electronic soundtrack. We are also treated to the occasional appearance of a big fluffy beast (a Fu Dog cum Dragon) who leaps with gay abandon into the space in front of the framed puppet theatre – to what end I was never quite sure but I liked him. This may or may not have been Basil Twist under all that white fluff; it was hard to tell.
Of course a piece such as this also involves a team of unseen animators beyond and behind the screens, but such was the magic of the piece that I was almost shocked when they appeared to take their bows, having been drawn into the idea of the flying screens having a mind of their own. A delightful show. Please can someone bring Basil back to Britain?
Toynbee Studios, London
29 November 2007
Reviewed by Beccy Smith
Forkbeard Fantasy’s new show, Invisible Bonfires, tackles serious ideas, albeit refracted through the lens of their customary deranged spectacles. In this case the spectacles are actual, with 3D glasses handed out as we entered the auditorium allowing us later to take advantage of the distinctly 1980s floor show: a journey through outer space complete with planets and asteroids whizzing around us. This wasn’t the production’s only spectacular element: live music from the supremely strange Lotus Pedals, who remained on stage throughout the show; the Barry White-toned, shadowy figure of Pan who loomed centre stage; a real-scale marionette-and-animatronix horse, whose lifelike presence more than rivalled that achieved by other shows whose budget far exceeded theirs.
The frame is a lo-tech road show, whose roguish hosts, The Brittonioni Brothers, are a pair of raffish cads out to turn a quick buck from the global trend in eco-consciousness by taking advantage of the naivety (and budget) of characters like local borough Climate Champion Paschale Pasquale. As their roadshow descends into chaos – with power cuts, audience intervention, explosions, and the arrival of characters from various dimensions – the Lotus Pedals’ big numbers and underscoring provide a touch of class and continuity, although at times the contrast in tone of their presence can feel jarring. This is not, of course, a show reliant on the classical principles of theatre: abrupt changes of direction are executed by their own barmy logic (‘Look! What’s this enormous hole in the floor?’) and characters such as a Patio Heater salesman, the Carbon Weevils (responsible for the unkind disturbance of many a slumbering nest of carbon) and Mammon all come and go in animation, cartoon and all manner of three-dimensional figure, as the ideas that flow throughout the show dictate. Indeed, this is performance that is bursting at the seams as a meta-theatrical cabaret, stuffed with visual, prop and puppet trickery that displays a childish delight in invention. Penny Saunder’s puppets are profligate and seeming to revel in the heterogeneity of our world and its ideas. She provides too, the show’s most thoughtful moments in the tabletop and marionette figures of the mysterious white horse, which asserts itself with quiet luminosity through the chaos.
There remains, in this idiosyncratic history, a genuine creative response to many of the ideas around climate change and the ecology of our changing world, all the more appealing because of its madcap context. Shambolic, bold and beautiful – this show won’t appeal to everyone, but if you can abandon yourself to its world, it offers truly unique rewards.
Reviews from the EDINBURGH FESTIVAL FRINGE 2007
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
1927 are a new company, featuring a collective of artists with a very obvious abundance of talents. The team are Miss Suzanne Andrade (writing, performance, directing), Miss Esme Appleton (performance, costume design), Miss Lillian Henley (music composition and performance) and Master Paul Bill Barritt (films, animations, artwork, sets).
The company take their name from the year 1927 in which Buster Keaton’s The General, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, were all released. This is all somehow there in 1927’s cabaret-theatre piece, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which swept the awards board at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, garnering for itself a Total Theatre Award for Best Newcomer, a Herald Angel, A Fringe First, and the coveted Carol Tambor, which will get them taken over to New York (oh, and Charles Lindbergh made the first transatlantic crossing by plane in 1927).
I don’t, by the way, have an encyclopaedic memory, all these little gems of information are available on the company’s website which (at www.19-27.co.uk) is one of my favourite Internet spots. And this is mentioned here because this is a company who refuse to be bound and gagged by the limitations of artistic genre. Their work embraces cabaret, theatre, film, animation, shadow puppetry, and illustration – their website is another arena for their art. And they like to play with form; a venture for the coming year is The Box, in which animations can be viewed through a facsimile of an old-fashioned peepshow camera box.
But the show, the show, you ask? It’s a delightful mix of mime, music, and moving image (augmented by real-time shadow puppetry). It starts by referencing the classic Keaton/Chaplin era of silent movies, with Keystone Cops vaudeville piano playing, and a white-faced mime in camisole and bloomers running frantically just to stay in the same place. Everything then turns dreamy, the melancholic notes of Satie accompanying us to a place of full moon madness, spooky cats, and rooftops outlined in chalky white on a sooty black background. This suddenly lurches into German expressionist mode, and the sounds of Kurt Weil mock and leer. There are dark attics sketched in sepia, mysterious poisonings, and grannies and lodgers tormented by a pair of Munsters meet Midwich Cuckoos girl twins. The stories bring suggestions of Der Struwwelpeter (the nasty nursery tales that inspired Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter) but crossed with the dreadful dream logic of dada and surrealism. There are clever little tricks mixing live and filmed action – one involves the participation of an audience member, always a risk, and they pull it off with aplomb. Although constructed as a series of sketches, there is enough of a journey of ideas, and a realised dramaturgy of themes and images, for it to qualify as a theatre show. And what a delightful show it is! I’m sure 2008 will be a great year for 1927.
Dulcinea Langfelder Co.
Aurora Nova St Stephen’s
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Reviewed by Beccy Smith
Elegant two-hander (plus wheelchair) first made in 1999, which sensitively portrays dementia – its real effects and imagined experience – as the symbolic but very real Victoria whiles away her final days with her male nurse, the audience and one imaginary cat. This is an accomplished piece of work, deceptive in its simplicity. Its whitewashed stage and plain lino floor, the enormous space of Aurora Nova broken into curves and corridors by sweeping hospital curtains. The text is similarly disingenuous. Victoria, a bird-like woman who creeps forward on tiptoe in her wheelchair, chatters directly to the audience as well as to her lone male nurse, her familiar wittering inconsequential in its forgetfulness, endearing even. As her mind fails, Victoria’s inner life is played out through shadow and movement, digital projections and moments of beautifully lyrical dance. Victoria plays knowingly with her sparse stage surround and the piece is highly theatrically aware – never relinquishing its hold on us as members of Victoria’s world, and deftly using meta-theatrical imagery to express its ideas – the progressive loss of self transforming Victoria from lead and raconteur to co-star to shadow, to puppet, to mute. This is a show which packs its emotional punches. As Victoria’s health deteriorates and her inner world increasingly floods the stage what is brought home theatrically is a profound sense of the loss, of self and dignity, the fear and the pain such a condition must ultimately engender.
Puppetry at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007 Roundup review by Darren East
There were many shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007 that used puppetry, as has become usual over the past few years. These included established puppet theatre companies such as Rizo Gabriadze’s world-famous Tbilisi Marionette Theatre from Georgia, who presented Battle of Stalingrad at the Aurora Nova festival; Scotland’s own Puppet State Theatre who made a triumphant return with The Man Who Planted Trees (see our Edinburgh 2006 roundup by Beccy Smith); and Theatre Risorius from France whose own touring truck cum theatre space was parked on the Grassmarket throughout August.
There were also numerous companies who used puppetry as one element in a physical or visual theatre piece. These included young company The River People with The Ordinaries, which featured a puppet in the central role as an abused child. This show was shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award for Best Emerging Company; not seen by this reviewer, but reports heard back were of an engaging show with well-integrated use of puppetry.
Unfortunately, in some shows that I did see, puppetry simply seemed to be a missing skill: Cabaret Decay Unlimited, at Aurora Nova, was made and performed by three Lecoq-trained performers, ‘with the complicity of’ Jos Houben (of Complicite!). All three had strong physical skills and fine singing voices, and Jofre Caraben’s dancing was impressive. Buttheir elements of puppetry were shoddily jangly – a disappointment when there were other well-honed skills on show. And while I enjoyed a sequence with a murderous sheep, all the preposterous headgear and a hand-in-urn sketch, the material felt very thin, all in all.
A show that seemed to have thought more about its puppetry as a visual aesthetic than as performance was Andrea Cusumano’s A Funeral for Don Quijote at Demarco Roxy Art House. Mira Rychlicka, who has worked with Kantor, was compelling in the central role and only speaking part. The roughly-constructed look of the piece was pleasing, with several wheeled-on doors, bandaged masks, and strings holding things together literally and figuratively.
But there were serious performance problems. The puppets were appealing rough figures, but the manipulation was perfunctory, hamstrung by indecisive operating mechanics. They were also frequently barely visible due to poor use of space and seeming lack of awareness of sightlines. Aside from Rychlicka, the other performers were fully masked most of the time, but didn’t seem to have considered the way masks need to modify physicality and the audience relationship. The church space in the Rocket main house is challenging, and potentially very exciting for a show that looked like this one did, but was badly used, so that we were craning to see much of the action.
Australian company The Suitcase Royale presented Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon at the Spiegelgarden. The show is born from an engaging heap of clutter, from which emerge all manner of pleasing surprises: miniature landscapes, lamplit scenes of horror, even a three-piece band complete with stand-up bass. Less engaging is the madcap story of a plot to take an underground journey in a machine bizarrely powered by cows' blood (although the early moment of slaughtering plastic toy cows is a joy).
The junkyard elements don't all work: the projections, for example, are mostly either too small or too thinly scrawled to be visible. The three performers deal endearingly well with strings of chaotic mishaps with set, sound, and material, but it's the untidiness of the ideas that is unsatisfying.
Back to the specialised puppet theatre: The Elves and the Shoemaker, by Theatre of Widdershins, certainly had well-crafted puppets and puppetry. It was a staunchly traditional family-oriented piece, a one-man-and-a-sidekick show: one tells the story and does the puppetry, while the other makes the musical noises and lends a hand with a bit of the shadow puppetry. The piece began well with a bit of audience foot-measuring and some surprises from the beautiful transformative set, but it slipped into a too-easy charm and the story itself was a little slow and overlong: just at the point where a twist, some acceleration or a quick ‘suddenly’ was needed, we got a repetitive elf-shoe-making sequence, which made much of the (capacity) audience restless. When this happens, the puppetry risks becoming merely illustrative of narrative and not genuinely alive in the telling of the story – it makes nothing happen, and thus feels dispensable. And the messages felt old hat too: the story was firmly about industrialisation and charming local craftsmen being put out of business by nasty soulless capitalists, which would have seemed a lost battle to be fighting even when I was the age of most of the audience. If there’d been instead a suggestion of – say – international child slavery in cheap shoe production, it might have felt a little more pointed.
Tuckedin’s Jackajack, at the Underbelly, was a confident, clear, ensemble performance, again for children, with several pleasing and contemporary moments: Mr Three-times, who says everything three times (with enjoyable twists); a forest made with metal rods and torchlight; a sequence where a crying mask doubled up with a puppet character to show her sadness; and a delightfully unpleasant just-so story about how double yellow lines came into being. The puppetry for the main two puppet characters was precise and communicative, although there was an unimaginative and messy shadow sequence. Much of the action was played downstage on the floor, rendering it entirely invisible to all but the front row, but I saw the first performance and this could easily have been fixed.
But again, the storytelling was the biggest problem; this rapidly became a tedious one-thing-after-another fantasy story as Jack the puppy set out in search of his little girl owner. It was unclear why they separated, and unclear why the particular challenges they faced needed to be met before they could reunite, so the story floated away from any real resonance, draining it of emotional depth. It felt very old-fashioned to split the performers between cast and puppeteers, the latter being in the space but ignored, black-clad and silent, while the former played all the parts and voices. Again, as with the Widdershins tale, there was too much storytelling-over-action, so that the visual elements, including the puppetry, became illustrative. There was a lot of good work here, but so much more could be achieved if the power of these elements was explored and they were allowed to have meaning on their own terms.
Watching Jammy Voo’s Something Blue (at the Underbelly) a couple of days after Cabaret Decay, I began to wonder if there’s a Lecoq clown-show blueprint, so great were the structural similarities. These five Lecoq-trained female performers, guest directed by theatre clown Angela de Castro, had an enthusiastic audience welcome, an extended nursery rhyme sketch, song parodies, a messy food sketch, a compere-in-disguise – all present and correct, and in roughly the same order. It mostly worked better here. My highlight was a wonderfully funny and moving seduction sequence with one performer and a glove puppet. It absolutely mined the possibilities of puppetry, and the power of the puppet-puppeteer relationship. The Wolf – a very well-worked head puppet – arrived for a date with Red Riding Hood, in a sequence that ended with Red attempting to literally mend a broken heart. I think I’m immune to the type of humour that encompasses young performers playing grannies singing choral versions of filthy pop songs, but the rest of the audience loved it. And the food sequence, well, I have to give them credit, at least, for taking it as far as smearing Nutella all over the body…
There was more good puppetry, including some witty transformations and a quite beautiful shadow sequence, in Les Enfants Terribles’ Terrible Infants (at the Pleasance, and to be at the Pleasance in Islington later in December). Billed for ‘big kids and small grown-ups', it told a series of quirky moral fables, centred on Tilly, who tells terrible tales. The show was slick, well organised, tidily performed, varied, with ensemble acting, puppetry, shadows, live music and a very pretty and handily versatile set. It had a neat narrative conclusion that made sense of the episodic structure. However, too often (once again) action was illustrative of verbal storytelling – the overriding problem with so much of the work seen in Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007.
Even if puppetry is technically done well (and it is now an established element of theatre-making), it needs to be integrated into methods of storytelling; a fundamental part of what is happening on stage; an essential tool, not a pretty addition or a substitute for something else.